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Free Trade Brexit: Think Tanks and Pressure Groups in Modern British Politics

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The role of opaquely-funded, right-wing think tanks, pressure groups, and lobby groups in the Brexit saga has been foregrounded recently. This is partially due to the surprisingly central role the Jacob Rees-Mogg-fronted European Research Group (ERG) has come to attain in the lead up to the original date for Britain leaving the EU and calls to revoke Article 50.[1] The longer history of such groups in British politics is underappreciated, however.

Think tanks and pressure groups played a role in the Leave campaign, though their influence is impossible to evaluate. Their efforts were only one part of the much wider array of forces presenting the Leave case and attempting to convince the electorate.[2] Aside from politicians and political parties – such as anti-EU Tory backbenchers, UKIP, and a smattering of Labour Lexit campaigners – sections of the British media, especially the tabloid press, also played a central role.[3] .

However, it is by defining how the withdrawal agreement should be managed, and the direction of Britain afterwards once outside of EU, that think tanks and pressure groups have been most influential. Different groups see Brexit as providing an opportunity for the radical overhaul of British society. Lexit advocates see it as an opportunity to reform Britain on more social democratic – or even socialist – grounds.

This, however, is wildly utopian. Unsurprisingly, the debate about how to reshape Britain post-Brexit among Leavers has come to be dominated by right-wing – often free market – voices, such as think tanks like the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute that are ideologically close, and often directly linked, to leading Brexiteers.[4] They see Brexit as a means of escaping EU regulations, enabling their ideal small-state, free trade Britain. This often joins with nationalist concerns. Some can even be plausibly described as nostalgic for empire: seeking Commonwealth nations as replacement trade partners is an obvious example. Such concerns are central to many in UKIP and the Conservatives, exemplified by Jacob Rees-Mogg having attended the annual dinner of the Traditional Britain Group, an organisation with a history of hard-line nationalism that veers into racism.[5]

Small groups focused on thrashing out policy, engaging in propaganda, and allowing politicians and ideological allies to interact have always been a feature of politics. Ginger groups, parliamentary committees, and dining and debating societies have been central to modern British politics.[6] But the growth of think tanks and similar organisations led to new, more professionalised forms. More funding can be directed at promoting certain causes, allowing teams of researchers and campaigners to be employed full time to both craft policies and political rhetoric and to build and maintain political and media networks to spread their ideas.

There was a boom after World War II. Right-wing think tanks and industry groups began to grow in number and influence as part of a ‘counterrevolution’ aimed at reversing the post-war Labour government’s social democratic reforms which had ushered in Keynesianism, a mixed economy, and the welfare state.

However, such groups began to emerge decades prior. The early twentieth century struggle between free trade and protectionism was a key moment, and an instance of political conflict with interesting resonances with Brexit.

It began in earnest with Joseph Chamberlain’s Tariff Reform campaign, championing imperial preference.[7] In one sense this was the opposite of Brexit, calling for Britain to become more closely enmeshed in an economic union, rather than leaving one. However, like with Brexit, there was also a deeper cultural aspect. Whereas those promoting Brexit value British identity and want to avoid becoming more politically and culturally tied to wider Europe, many proponents of imperial preference saw it as a way to rebuild a shared identity between imperial nations, particularly with the white-majority Dominions that had been granted political autonomy.

Chamberlain founded the Tariff Reform League in 1903,[8] and there were a number of industry groups which pushed for protectionism such as the Empire Development Union (EDU) and the Empire Industries Association (EIA). The Conservative politician Leo Amery played a key role, helping set up and manage the Imperial Fund, which covertly financed a range of organisations including the Trade Union Tariff Reform League.[9]

Free traders had their own organisations, such as the Free Trade Union. Whether they were decisive in nurturing popular support for free trade, or conversely a manifestation of popular feeling, Britain at the opening of the twentieth century has convincingly been described as having been a ‘Free Trade Nation’. Some of those involved in these efforts would go on to play key roles in setting up post-war free market think tanks and industry pressure groups such as Aims in Industry.

Elections fought over free trade vs protectionism resulted in Conservative electoral defeats in 1906 and 1923, but the protectionist pressure groups continued their efforts, while large sections of the press heavily pushed the policy.[10] By 1932, imperial preference was introduced at the Ottawa Conference. Whether the electorate had been swayed is hard to say as opinion polls had not yet been introduced and there was no referendum.[11] Yet politicians who favoured the policy believed – or could claim – they now had a mandate.

After Ottawa, groups such as the EDU and EIA rolled back their activities. The future course of action was relatively straightforward and decided directly by the executive.

Brexit is different. Only a stark choice between Remain and Leave was offered in the referendum, even though the possibilities for what happens after are much more open-ended. This has allowed right-wing political groups that had campaigned for Leave to assume an influential position.[12] This is not surprising given the rise in importance of such organisations, their close links to most of the leading Brexiteers, and the increasing impact of ‘dark money’ over politics.

Patriotic and free trade ideologies are combined in the Brexit visions of the most prominent Leavers. Somewhat ironically, it seems the two opposing sides of the free trade versus (imperial) patriotism struggle which led to the rise of the modern think tank and pressure group in Britain are now fused, and pushing for the same outcome.

Aaron Ackerley is an Associate Tutor at the University of Sheffield. He recently completed his Wolfson Foundation funded PhD thesis at Sheffield, titled Economic Ideas in the Interwar British Daily Press. It examines the contention that knowledge is power by analysing the specific ways in which economic ideas were created, reformulated, and transmitted by journalists. You can find him on Twitter @AaronAckerley.

Related Stories

Always on the sidelines? A historian’s view on Brexit by Eirini Karamouzi

The Postcolonial Clairvoyants? Seeing Brexit in the Writings of Paul Gilroy and Bill Schwarz by Liam Liburd

 

[1] This would put on hold, or even provide the possibility of cancelling, Brexit. The ERG is a Parliamentary research support group, consisting of a group of Conservative MPs which have used hundreds of thousands of pounds of tax payers’ money to fund its activities. However, it fits into a wider pattern of opacity that is the feature of many think tanks and pressure groups, with the ERG refusing to publicly reveal its membership list. There are also questions concerning its wider sources of funding, and many of its leading figures are closely connected to prominent right-wing free tanks and pressure groups.

[2] One of the more contentious elements have been claims of foreign interference in the referendum campaign, both state-backed as in the case of Russian propaganda and by private interests such as the US billionaire Robert Mercer. The latter has cultivated his own network of think tanks and alternative media companies, as well having financed Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm implicated in the breaking of electoral law.

[3] Tabloid newspapers such as the Daily Mail and the Daily Express were powerful champions of Leave, and decades of anti-EU stories featuring in their pages, many often being grossly inaccurate, helped lay the foundation for the Leave victory. The circulation of these titles has been steadily decreasing, which led some commentators to suggest their power was waning, but even aside from influencing their own readerships these titles helped set the wider media agenda, such as coverage across the BBC and especially the influential Today show on BBC Radio 4.

[4] For example, Rees-Mogg was one of the most high-profile champions of the Institute of Economic Affair’s post-Brexit policy plan.

[5] Mogg later said he regretted attending, but the fact he was trading on similar rhetoric and operating in linked networks led to his participation in the first place.

[6] This covers parliamentary committees and affiliated societies that are still important such as the Conservative 1922 Committee or the Labour Fabian Society, as well institutions that were more influential in earlier decades such as the Liberal Reform Society and cross-party dining and debating clubs such as Grillion’s, or imperialist groups such as the Coefficients and the Compatriots Club.

[7] This meant the erection of a protective tariff wall around the British Empire, designed to foster intra-imperial trade at the expense of non-Empire nations.

[8] The proprietors of newly founded popular daily newspapers such as the Daily Mail’s Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe) and the Daily Express’s Arthur Pearson became members.

[9] Amery also created a state agency, the Empire Marketing Board, which launched large-scale initiatives aimed at urging consumers to buy Empire goods, utilising poster campaigns and films.

[10] Most notable was the Daily Express, acquired by Lord Beaverbrook in 1916.

[11] Though in the preceding years some opponents had called for one, such as the liberal, free trade supporting newspaper the Manchester Guardian. ‘Books of the Day’, Manchester Guardian, 17 Jul 1930, 7.

[12] These groups are better able to promote their plans about how to reshape Britain’s post-Brexit future as many opponents of Brexit are focused on calling for a second vote.

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Always on the sidelines? A historian’s view on Brexit

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Brexit is one, albeit the most consequential chapter in a tale that has spanned decades. Britain’s ‘awkward’ relationship with European integration has a long and complex history. Advancing a thesis of ‘the awkward partner’ neither accepts the teleological tale that Britain was bound to leave the EU nor that the country’s ‘awkwardness’ towards Europe has been ‘exceptional’- on the contrary, it has been shared by others at different stages of European integration.

The difference is that British difficulties with the European project has been consistent and long-standing: from non-involvement in the original EEC, then a tortuous road to membership; once inside the Community, beset by budgetary hassles, Britain secured opt-outs from Schengen and the Eurozone whilst elite and the public opinion stood indifferent or most times negatively disposed.

A historical perspective can contribute to the understanding of this difficult marriage and gives us an insight into the reasons for the upcoming divorce. Without negating the immense value of the ever-growing political science literature on Brexit and on why the Brits voted to leave [1], a historical account will attempt to trace how Britain slowly and painfully advanced in Churchillian terms from ‘of but not with’ to arguably ‘with but not of’ Europe.

Hunting in vain for a role in Europe

Historians have offered contrasting explanations for Britain’s turn towards the EEC and its first application in 1961 ranging from commercial interests to political considerations. Moreover, in the 1960s, there was a hope that EEC membership would bolster prevalent perceptions of a ‘sense of relative decline’ in UK’s international reach and power. As Tomlinson has noted ‘declinism was an ideology, not a straightforward description of reality’. [2] Britain’s sluggish growth – not by historical records but in relation to the comparatively higher growth rate of EEC economies – meant that ‘by 1950 the difference in per capita GDP between the UK and Six [EEC countries] was 28%. Seven years later, when the Treaty of Rome was signed, it stood at 15%, and in 1961 when Britain applied, the difference had reached 10%.’[3]

In January 1963, several days after General de Gaulle’s veto, Harold Macmillan wrote in his diary: ‘the great question remains: What is the alternative to the European Community? If we are honest we must say there is none.’[4] Echoing similar disillusionment, but several years later, the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson would also come to acknowledge how far economic realities dictated Britain’s move towards the Community.

The French, however, still with de Gaulle at the helm, would not even permit the enlargement talks to commence – pointing to Britain’s financial problems and capitalizing on Wilson’s decision to devalue the pound in October 1966 and its balance of payment deficit.  By the time Edward Heath became prime minister in 1970 and revived the failed second application, Britain’s political elite hoped that joining the Community would achieve multiple goals. Rather than being relegated to the sidelines, Britain would be in a position to reap the economic and political benefits of Community membership. Importantly, accession to the Community would allow Britain to catch up to the superior economic performance the Six had experienced over the 1960s.

An awkward partner?

Stephen George rightly argues that Britain ‘did not participate in the most successful period of the history of the Communities’ (the 1960s) and so ‘membership did not come to have the popular positive connotations in Britain that it had in the founder states’.[5] Britain’s timing was poor, and an important factor in Britain’s awkwardness towards Europe’s.

The 1975 EC referendum contributed to Britain’s awkward partner status because, despite the vote in favour of membership, Britain was not transformed into a straightforward partner for the Community. On the contrary, it cemented the use and abuse of the European issue as an instrument of domestic political management.

Under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher ‘there was a significant reconfiguration’ of Britain’s relationship with the EC. The Thatcher government went through a multitude of highs and lows in its relationship with the Community; the Prime Minister herself was at the epicentre. Tumultuous periods were common, for example, the battle over British contributions to the EC budget.

More constructive engagement followed in relation to the Single European Act of 1986. The Act fulfilled Thatcher’s ambition of a Single Market within the Community and many applauded her on the triumphant exportation of Thatcherism to Europe. Towards the end of her time in Downing Street, fierce confrontations took place both within the Thatcher government over its European policy and between Thatcher and the EEC.

The end of the 1980s shed any illusions of the prospect of exerting leadership within the EEC, an ambition that was best summed up in Wilson’s comments in 1967: ‘if we couldn’t dominate that lot, there wasn’t much to be said for us’.[6] Britain’s insular policy, lack of enthusiasm and minimalist approach limited its influence within the Community, that never came close to the Franco-German engine of European integration.

However Thatcher’s most important legacy, however, was breaking once and for all the declinist narrative spiral of the 1960s and 1970s. Europe progressively ceased to be the medicine to British malaise as its economy far from being the ‘sick man of Europe’ had by ‘mid-1990s outperformed the leading economies of Western Europe by most measures.[7] This reversal of fortunes and the slow demise of the feeling ‘of no alternative to membership’  patched a hole in one of the most central arguments in selling the pro-European narrative, and was never truly replaced.  The lack of appeal of economic interest was concomitant to other European developments.

The Maastricht treaty of 1992, its aftermath revisions and the ‘big bang enlargement’ to central and Eastern Europe ushered in a period of deeper integration, mass migration and further pooling of national sovereignty, marking a shift within the wider European public opinion. Things were worse for Britain ‘where few have taken the European project to heart, as indicated by their low level of willingness to acknowledge a European identity’.[8]

Far from saving Britain, the Eurozone debt crisis and mass migration dealt the final blow to the already little relish for the European task and amplified British Euroscepticism. Brexit and the referendum result of 2016 was a result of short-term political and economic developments as well as longer-term socio-demographic changes in the electorate. But it’s hard to deny that the fuel that the Eurosceptics ignited in 2016 had been accumulated in these decades-long love-hate relationship with Europe.

Eirini Karamouzi is Senior Lecturer in Contemporary History at the University of Sheffield. Her main research interests lie in the history of European integration and the Cold War,  she is co-director of the Cultures of the Cold War Network and editor of Cold War History Journal. Her book, Greece, the EEC and the Cold War, 1974-1979: The Second Enlargement (2014), and edited volume Balkans in the Cold War (2017) are available through Palgrave Macmillan. You can find her on twitter @EiriniKaramouzi.

Related Stories

The Postcolonial Clairvoyants? Seeing Brexit in the Writings of Paul Gilroy and Bill Schwarz  by Liam Liburd

Free Trade Brexit: Think Tanks and Pressure Groups in Modern British Politics by Aaron Ackerley

 

[1] Sara Hobolt (2016), ‘The Brexit vote: a divided nation, a divided continent’, Journal of European Public Policy, 23, 1259-1277;

[2] Jim Tomlinson, The Politics of Decline: Understanding Post-War Britain (Harlow: Longman, 2001)

[3] http://voxeu.org/article/britain-s-eu-membership-new-insight-economic-history

[4] Cited in Vernon Bognador, ‘Footfalls echoing in the memory. Britain and Europe: the historical perspective’, International Affairs 81:4 (2005), 693.

[5] George, An Awkward Partner, p.5.

[6] Robert Saunders, Yes to Europe! The 1975 Referendum and Seventies Britain (Oxford University Press, 2018), 47

[7] Charles Grant (2008). Why is Britain Eurosceptic? Centre for Europeanreform essay, published online.

[8] John Curtice, ‘Why Leave won the UK’s EU referendum’, Journal of Common Market Studies 55 (2017), 21

 

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Nancy Astor: feminist by default rather than by design

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This ‘diablog’ between Dr Jacqui Turner from the University of Reading and Dr Julie V. Gottlieb from the University of Sheffield is a discussion about the life, legacy and varied political career of Lady Nancy Astor. It is published as part of a collaboration between the University of Reading (@uniRdg_history @uniRdg_research) and the University of Sheffield (@UniShefHistory).

A week ago we marked the 100th anniversary of the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act on 1918, and since its passage 491 women have served as MPs.

Today is the 99th anniversary of Astor’s election to Parliament in a by-election in Plymouth, becoming the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons. This milestone is being marked with an ambitious series of public events, learning resources, and the erection of a statue of Astor in her Plymouth constituency, and all part of #Astor100.

As the curator of #Astor100, Jacqui is working closely with the archivists at the University of Reading where Astor’s papers are housed, and with a wide network of politicians, students, scholars, the Astor family and the public to preserve the legacy of the women pioneers in Parliamentary politics.

Nancy Astor has also figured prominently in Julie’s research on women’s politicization in the aftermath of suffrage, and, in particular, on how women politicians engaged with international relations and peace movements. As the hostess of the so-called Cliveden Set, Nancy Astor is one of the key protagonists in Julie’s recent book ‘Guilty Women’, Foreign Policy and Appeasement in Inter-war Britain (Palgrave, 2015).

In discussion, Jacqui and Julie wanted to tackle these questions: How should Astor be remembered and memorialised? How can historians make sure that Astor is represented in the round, and in all her complexity and with all her contradictions? How can the Astor100 project be about so much more than the glorification of one woman’s political career?

Jacqui:  Astor100 is not only about Nancy Astor, it a celebration of the achievement of an individual that will facilitate a wider celebration of what she represented and the avenues she pioneered for women who followed. It also amplifies the demand for continued progress towards political equality – we are not there yet!

The election of Nancy Astor changed British democracy forever. The importance of her election is that, for the first time, a woman was able to directly influence the parliamentary debate and the writing of the laws of her own land – a responsibility she willingly shouldered for all women. Her arrival in Parliament ushered in a new type of politician, a public woman, a new perspective and a reminder that there was a female electorate who increasingly demanded to be satisfied.

The biggest challenges have been in setting the terms of the project, making sure that Astor100 has the right voice and that we engage with a C21st audience. Evaluations of Astor are inevitably androcentric; Astor is a mercurial character most often only understood in reference to her gender, in regard to her husband Waldorf, her deficiencies as a mother and in relation to her intervention into a masculine parliament. Her legacy has inevitably been evaluated and interpreted by male biographers, Astor100 is an opportunity dispel some of the myths and attributions made to her and look at her afresh.

We also need to be conscious of the fact that Nancy Astor herself did not ask to be memorialised; her own views were expressed at her memorial service ‘When I die I don’t want any monuments but I want litter bins, scattered all over the city marked ‘in memory of Lady Astor’’[1]. We need to respect her views and ensure there is a legacy, maybe not litter bins but a strong message to women and girls that whoever they are and whatever their beliefs they can engage in the decisions that shape all of our lives.

What do you find most problematic about Astor?

Julie: It is inevitable that when we search through history for exemplary figures, for figures who will be made to represent their era or a major milestone, that we will be struck by the often huge gulf between their attitudes on a range of things –  especially to do with race, sex, and class – and our present-day sensibilities.

This is certainly the case with Nancy Astor. Even in her own time she was highly controversial and often self-contradictory. At once she considered herself a representative of working women and mothers, while she was one of the richest women in the land. Astor aligned herself with women’s peace organizations and regarded women as natural pacifists, while pursuing the aims of Anglo-German understanding by entertaining the Nazi top brass at her Cliveden seat. The American-born Astor was xenophobic and anti-Semitic, and yet she could not imagine a fascist Britain as the Blackshirts were just too ridiculous and laughable.

Jacqui: Today in the 21st century I find many of her opinions problematic but particularly her anti-Semitic statements. To put her into the context of the prevalence of anti-Semitism in the interwar period and within the society in which Nancy lived is not to condone such views. Nancy Astor has almost become more synonymous with the prejudices of her time than the many men who held similar views but escaped similar censure. They have not been subject to the same level of scrutiny. One of our biggest challenges is in representing Astor’s personal paradoxes – her unguarded public statements that rarely reflected private actions and kindnesses to both Jewish people and Catholics. There is much less comment on the appalling misogyny of male contemporaries who are understood in relation to ‘it was just the times’. Many prominent men had a few good years for which they are remembered, whereas Astor’s unpalatable statements were made in the heightened political climate in the run up to World War II.  It also strikes me that Nancy Astor is the single most pilloried person in the appeasement and anti-Semitic debate yet she was a back bench female MP with little or no power. She was surrounded by senior, influential men who escape similar scrutiny. It is her gender that belies so much of this comment and is why we judge her by a higher standard.

Julie: It is important too to understand Astor as a feminist by default rather than by design. Her entry into politics had nothing to do with feminism or with the suffrage movement—indeed, of the 36 women who became MPs between the wars, not one had a suffragette pedigree.  Nonetheless, Astor quickly grew into her role as first the only and always the first woman MP. Especially during the 1920s, she made many efforts to work with her fellow women, regardless of party affiliation. She could well have steered clear of women’s issues. Some of the other women MPs did among that first generation of women MPs did just that, especially some of her Tory colleagues. It is instructive in this respect to compare her causes and campaigns with that of the Conservative Katherine Duchess of Atholl—and they would find themselves on diametrically opposite sides of the debate about appeasing Nazi Germany in the late 1930s.

Jacqui: When reflecting on her career Astor always claimed that she had been ‘as good a feminist as anyone’. She had never had any longstanding ambition to be a politician and openly expressed that her ‘husband put the idea in my head… and I should get out of it if he got rid of his peerage’ (BBC 1945).  Astor was a ‘difference feminist’. She was determined to prove that women were as physically capable of being full participants in the rigours of political life as men. She often expressed that in many ways women were more suited to public life as women had ‘moral courage’ and were ‘not so easily flattered’. The concept of female moral courage was a constant theme throughout her speeches and in the many reflective interviews she gave after she stood down.

Cliveden Visitor Book 1915 (Image from Reading University Special Collections)

However, even before 1919 Astor was not without feminist sympathies. In spring 1915 she had a sustained correspondence with Emmeline Pankhurst who considered Astor a sympathetic route to the press.  She was also instrumental in pushing though the 1928 franchise.  She held her party and Baldwin’s government to account for promises made regarding the equal franchise.  She worked with suffrage organisations facilitating meetings with senior politicians and acting as a conduit between them and the Conservative Party.  She was a pioneer of women in the professions lending her support to legislation surrounding women in the workplace and the safety of women when out on the streets.

How then does Astor serve as a fitting representative of women’s political achievements? Is she worthy of being one of the most prominent personifications of the long struggle for women’s emancipation?

Julie: It is in fact despite or rather because of her complexity that I do think that Astor’s story should be given prominence. Astor100 is a very timely project for many reasons, nor should we forget to make the obvious but important point that it is being launched when Britain has its second woman and Conservative woman Prime Minister, Theresa May.

But why Astor, and how can she be made to tell a much more nuanced story about women’s political participation? Let us recall that we don’t talk about men’s political history. Of course not. It is taken for granted that in politics men are divided in myriad ways. There are no “men’s issues” as such, and men would almost never think to group together as men to represent the interests of their own beleaguered sex.

Placing Astor at the centre of the memorialisation of 100 years of women in Parliament is an important reminder that women too do not and should not be assumed to band together as one, or to confine their interest to “women’s issues”. Not all women who enter the political sphere are motivated by feminism, and Britain’s first woman Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is evidence of this point. Astor’s story reminds us that the story of women in politics is distinct from the story of the feminist movement as such, even when there are intersections.

What you are trying to achieve with Astor100?

Jacqui:   With Astor100 we are trying to facilitate an informed, nuanced and constructive narrative that includes the debates and criticism surrounding Nancy Astor.  As an individual her courage and resilience in standing alone for almost 2 years in a hostile House established a platform on which women continue to build today.  In many ways, our discussion is still as relevant today as it was for Astor. To be first is important, some people can do it and others cannot. Astor rose to the challenge and she was necessary. She was pioneer and women in politics today continue to need similar qualities to withstand highly gendered and hate-filled criticism especially on social media. By 2019 we will also have an opportunity to reflect on both Vote100 and Astor100.

Christmas Card 1945. Image from Reading University’s Special Collections

Today, Astor100 kicks off with our digital exhibition ‘An Unconventional MP’ The political life of Nancy Astor in 50 documents, showcasing some of the documents from Nancy Astor’s Papers at the University of Reading.  The exhibition will be supported by a series of blogs and downloadable leaflets for schools; all written by historians (including Julie), Nancy’s family, politicians and the people she represented. You can find us at https://research.reading.ac.uk/astor100/  where you can keep up with news, explore the work of our partners and up to date events.

Jacqui Turner is Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Reading and Curator of #Astor100.

Julie V Gottlieb is Reader in Modern History at the University of Sheffield.

[1] Lady Astor Memorial Service 12th May 1964 delivered by the Rt Reverend Norman Clarke, Anglican Bishop of Plymouth

 

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