close

British Democracy

In the battle of Archbishop vs. Prime Minister, who has history on their side?

Home_Secretary_-_Rwanda_Visit_2

Over the Easter weekend, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby spoke out against the Government’s newly announced plan to send some people seeking asylum in the United Kingdom to Rwanda. Welby called the plan ‘against the judgment of God’; his predecessor, the distinguished theologian and scholar Prof Rowan Williams concurred. Neither the Prime Minster, nor the Home Secretary, were thrilled when Welby called the UK plan to send away those arriving via small boats across the English Channel ‘subcontracting out our responsibilities’. Rumours suggest Boris Johnson criticised Welby harshly for the comments.

Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby. Credit: World Council of Churches

There is important historical context for Welby’s claim against the Prime Minister, but it might go unnoticed because of the current public verbal jabs. If one goes all the way back to when the biblical statements on the treatment of people seeking asylum on which Welby builds his argument were written, one can see clearly that Johnson’s government closely resembles the imperial, colonial programme of the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires that oppressed the authors of the relevant texts in the Bible. This parallel matters, whatever one makes of Welby’s Christian faith.

The Hebrew Bible—as scholars call the anthology of texts central to Judaism and Christianity, known most widely as the Old Testament—was written over a period of 500 years or more, but the critical historical period that motivated them lies between about 800 BCE and 500 BCE. In that period, two imperial powers from Mesopotamia (the area we now know as Iraq and Iran) ruled over the whole ancient Near East. Both powers pursued policies of forced displacement that treated those outside of an elitist, learned, narrowly privileged class as human resources who could be moved about like chess pieces on a gameboard. The Assyrian kings of the 9th to 7th centuries BCE routinely ‘resettled’ people, as did their Babylonian successors in the 6th century BCE. Some skilled craftsmen (in the ancient world, they were all men) were brought to Assyria’s burgeoning heartland to assist with its economic development and immense urban building programmes. Many, many others were systematically relocated according to plans crafted by a small group of government officials. Those who were forcibly moved were ‘distributed’ in ways that were economically profitable to the Assyrians, often with populations being swapped in order to achieve this economic goal. All of this had the aim of ‘Assyrianising’ the population and minimising the chance of rebellion against the Empire.

One can be forgiven for thinking this all sounds familiar. Announcing the recent British scheme, Home Secretary Priti Patel explained that it would ‘provide human capital opportunities for migrants and the host community’. Just days after the scheme was announced, it emerged that the UK would ‘resettle a portion of Rwanda’s most vulnerable refugees in the United Kingdom,’ a contemporary form of population swapping expressed in politically correct bureaucratic language.

Consider, for contrast, the Hebrew Bible: this anthology is the product of the society most know as ancient Israel. Despite being far more familiar to most than Assyria or Babylonia, ancient Israel was a small, marginal, and colonised society. Its attitude towards migration was shaped by the ever-present threat of being forcibly displaced by the Assyrians or Babylonians—a reality that came to fruition in waves of conquests and displacements in 722, 592, and finally 586 BCE, when Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians, who exiled many of its residents.

The Hebrew Bible speaks about migration from the perspective of those who have experienced it. It may be no surprise then that a frequent refrain in the Hebrew Bible is that one should establish justice for widows, orphans, and the stranger—the final term meaning something very close to what we mean by migrant or think of with regard to a person seeking asylum. In fact, the logic for this behaviour is that the ancestors of Israel were themselves ‘strangers’.

Just a few sentences after the famous command to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18) that became the touchstone of what Jesus of Nazareth taught (Matthew 22:34-40), one finds the command on how to treat the alien—an archaic translation of a Hebrew term better read as migrant since it connotes a foreigner who wants to settle into their new host society. ‘When an alien resides with you in your land,’ the command goes, one ‘shall not oppress the alien’, but treat them ‘as the citizen’ because one’s ancestors were themselves such migrants. Since the society that produced the Hebrew Bible experienced the world as colonised, and disempowered on the international stage, under threat from larger powers, and as involuntary migrants snatched from their homeland, it spoke with openness, compassion, and an attitude of acceptance about those who wanted to settle in its midst, whatever their background.

One might legitimately differ on the theological point made by Archbishop Welby that Johnson and Patel are acting in an ungodly fashion, but it is impossible to deny that their policy resembles that of the imperial, colonising Assyrians. Indeed, that might be the most important insight ancient history provides for us: whatever one makes of the UK-Rwanda pact, it reveals an imperial mindset that is at ease with treating people on the move as a disembodied ‘human resource’ that can be distributed and redistributed according to the plans of a narrow elite. The present case, like its Assyrian forebearer, seeks to protect national identity (read ‘British values’ for ‘Assyrianisation’) and minimise the chance—however small it be—of any unrest. The entire ‘hostile environment’ policy that the Home Office has pursued for years now has the hallmarks of a modern incarnation of the Assyrian programme for establishing and maintaining power. An imperial mindset is hard to shake it seems.

If one reframes the dispute between the Archbishop and the Prime Minster in historical instead of theological terms, it is clear what perspective the two represent. Johnson and his ministers are thinking and acting like the ancient imperial and colonising elite; the Archbishop has articulated the view of the colonised, those being forced to migrate, whether he knows it or not.

Rev Dr Casey Strine is Senior Lecturer in Ancient Near Eastern History and Literature at the University of Sheffield. He studies the history, literature, and cultures of the ancient Middle East, with a specialization in ancient Israel and Judah, the two societies that produced the texts known widely as the Old Testament. Strine is also the Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Palestine Exploration Fund, the world’s oldest organisation for the scientific exploration of the so-called ‘Holy Land’.

Cover image: Home Secretary Priti Patel and Minister Biruta sign the migration and economic development partnership between the UK and Rwanda. Credit: UK Home Office

read more

And they’re off!: What Sports Discourse Can Reveal About Postwar British Democracy

1971 Anglo-Italian Cup Winners – Blackpool Football Club

Whether you are an avid football fan who never misses a game or, like myself you have yet to grasp the offside rule, sport is near impossible to avoid. A form of entertainment and escapism, sport undoubtedly plays a crucial role within our lives.

In response to the irrefutable prevalence of sport, over the past decade we have seen a rise in sports history as a respected field within academia.

Noting how sport history is primarily ‘marked by a cultural approach’, in his 2021 article Harm Kaal makes a convincing case that sport should be taken more seriously by political historians of the postwar period.[1]

As Kaal states, sport and politics are ‘intimately connected’, yet until now political historians have ‘hardly reflected on the nature of this connection in the postwar years’.[2]

One of the most prominent ways that we see the link between sport and politics, and indeed between sport and many spheres of popular culture, is through language and communication. As a political historian whose research is centered on articulations of democracy in the tabloid press, it is certainly hard to avoid the conflation between sporting and political discourse.

In this blog post I will be investigating the use of sporting discourse in political reporting, in particular how it was utilised during British General Elections in the 1970s. This will provide insights into the nature of democratic culture during this period.

On 19th May 1970, the Express announced the beginning of the election campaign with the front-page headline, ‘THE PREMIER STAKES’, accompanied by the subheading ‘They’re off on June 18th’, utilising discourse drawn from horseracing in order to mark the start of electioneering.[3]

Alongside the article, the Express published a cartoon image of the main candidates, Wilson and Heath, racing on horseback.[4] Here the democratic process was being equated to horse racing, a sport with an unclear outcome that is very much dependent on the performance of individuals on the day. Coverage of the election was therefore less about policy and parties, and instead focused on the performances of individual prospective representatives during their campaign, as opposed to long-term party affiliation.

This process can also be seen in the following quote pulled from the Sun’s coverage of the second General Election of 1974:

 ‘As we move into the half-way stage of this thrilling contest – so help me, I am beginning to sound like Match of the Day – it is clear that honesty is the new policy. The dramatic first-half incident, in which Mrs Shirley Williams scored an own-goal, may actually have turned out to the advantage of that celebrated schemer, Twinkletoes Harold [Wilson]’.[5]

This time equating politics to football, we see politicians being referred to in a satirical manner, detaching them from their parties and instead focusing on their individual performance.

Along similar lines, in the month preceding the 1979 election, the Mirror also utilised boxing vocabulary in order to communicate their notions of the electioneering process, declaring that ‘the first round of the battle between the two election heavyweights [had] been won by Jim Callaghan – without a glove being laid on him’.[6]

Language such as ‘heavyweights’, ‘lightweights’, ‘combat’, and ‘battered’, along with describing Westminster as an ‘arena’, immediately drew parallels between politics and boxing, making democratic deliberation more tangible for newspaper readers.[7] As well as making politics more accessible, principally to men, it also shifted political representatives’ positions within democratic culture. Once yardsticks of gentlemanly civility, they instead became sources of entertainment, allowing for them to be viewed with less deference.

The use of sporting metaphors in newspapers’ coverage of politics was symptomatic of the broader changes in the way the popular press was articulating popular understandings of democracy. From the late 1950s onwards, party democracy was facing a lot of criticism from the popular press and its readers, who desired increased proximity between the people and their political representatives.

The version of democracy we see emerging in the 1970s therefore, referred to by Bernard Manin as “audience democracy”, was a product of efforts to make this an actuality.[8] Politicians attempted to present themselves and were being presented as “one of the people”. One of the ways through which the popular press did this was through the use of sporting vernacular, which allowed them to communicate politics with their readers within a framework that they could relate to. In other words, sport made politicians more palpable for the ordinary person.

What we can see from this small case study is that there is a real value in political historians taking seriously sports history, along with other aspects of popular culture including the tabloid press.

Sport can help us shed light on changes in political communication, popular expectations of representatives, inclusion and exclusion and shifts in political power.

These concerns will be explored in the Voice of the People project, which aims to put the voices of ordinary citizens centre stage in the discussions of postwar political cultural, by deconstructing articulations of democracy in the popular press.

Jamie Jenkins is a PhD student at Radboud University working on the Voices of the People project. She tweets @jenkinsleejamie.

Cover Image: Anglo-Italian Cup Winners, Blackpool FC., 1971. Source: Wikimedia Commons


[1] Kaal, H. G. J., ‘Boundary Disputes: New approaches to the interaction between sport and politics in the postwar years’, Journal of Modern European History 19.3 (2021), p. 364.

[2] Ibid., p. 362.

[3] Maurice Trowbridge, ‘THE PREMIER STAKES!’, Daily Express, May 19th 1970, p. 1.

[4] Daily Express, May 19th 1970, p. 1.

[5] John Akass, ‘Twinkletoes could find it pays to tell the truth’, The Sun, September 30th 1974, p. 6.

[6] Terence Lancaster, ‘Election Briefing’, Daily Mirror, 5th April 1979, p. 2.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Bernard Manin, The principles of representative government (New York, 1997), p. 218.

read more

‘The issue is almost exclusively Palestine’: Palestine and British By-Elections

1068px-Jews_flee_the_Old_City_of_Jerusalem,_August_1929

Keir Starmer’s tenure as Labour leader looks increasingly insecure. After losing last month’s by-election in Hartlepool, defeat in the upcoming Batley and Spen by-election would be a significant blow and might well trigger a leadership challenge.

Rather unexpectedly, Palestine has become the most prominent issue in an election campaign in the heart of the so-called ‘Red Wall’. Former Labour and Respect MP George Galloway has placed Palestine at the centre of his campaign as Workers’ Party candidate, and his criticisms of the Labour leadership’s response to the recently proposed forced evictions in East Jerusalem and the subsequent Israeli airstrikes on Gaza appear to be resonating with some voters. The Times journalist Patrick Maguire quoted a local Labour source as saying ‘The issue is almost exclusively Palestine… On Friday evening, Galloway had been around 45 minutes before us in one of our stomping grounds. Nobody wanted to speak to us.’ 

This development has prompted a response from Labour locally and nationally. The party’s candidate Kim Leadbeater has distributed a leaflet which appears to criticise her own party leadership, stating that ‘[t]he British government must do more. I will ensure Labour is more vocal on this. I will be your strong national voice on Palestine in parliament, to government and within the Labour Party.’ Some have even argued that Starmer’s recent question in the House of Commons on Palestinian statehood was intended to bolster Labour’s support in the by-election where one in five voters in the town of Batley are British Muslims.

This is not the first time that Palestine has become a topic for Labour at a recent by-election: Galloway himself has highlighted his pro-Palestinian record in his shock victory in Bradford West in 2012, but anger at Labour’s support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were then arguably more salient factors. While it is unlikely that Galloway can repeat such a feat, he may well secure the votes of a sufficient number of traditionally Labour-supporting electors to ensure a Conservative victory.

Delving further into the past, we can see that British policy in Palestine has been a central issue in various electoral contests, albeit for very different reasons. In November–December 1930, a by-election campaign was waged in Whitechapel and St George’s, an area where one in three voters were Jews.[1] Just four days before the by-election was called due to the death of the sitting Labour MP, the Labour government had issued its White Paper on Palestine–then a British Mandate–which proposed restrictions on Jewish immigration into Palestine. The policy was met with ferocious opposition from the Zionist movement, from British opposition parties, and from some elements within the Labour movement itself. The White Paper, authored by Colonial Secretary Sidney Webb, was issued after official inquiries by the Shaw Commission and the Hope-Simpson Enquiry into the causes of prolonged inter-communal violence between Jews and Arabs that had broken out in August 1929.

A group photograph of the members of the Commission on the Palestine Disturbances of August 1929, commonly known as the Shaw Commission, that was established to investigate the 1929 Palestine Riots which caused the deaths of 243 Jews and Arabs. Source: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

The main threat to Labour in the by-election came from the Liberal Party. Barnett Janner, a leading activist in the English Zionist Federation, was chosen as the Liberal candidate. His election address emphasized his longstanding commitment to Zionism and claimed that his party was ‘at the forefront of the fight’ against the White Paper, which he regarded as reneging on the British pledge made in the 1917 Balfour Declaration to create a Jewish National Home in Palestine.[2] When Liberal leader Lloyd-George strongly criticised  the government’s proposals in the House of Commons, one Labour MP accused him of having ‘one eye on the Mount of Olives and the other on a [Jewish] part of the East End of London where a by-election is about to take place.’[3]

In response to Janner, the Labour candidate James Hall issued a special leaflet which insisted that the Labour government was still committed to creating a Jewish National Home.[4] He also informed the party’s Labour-Zionist affiliate Poale Zion that if elected he would vote against his own government if it sought to implement the White Paper.[5] Satisfied by these reassurances, Poale Zion backed Hall’s campaign, a decision that was so controversial that when Poale Zion leaders addressed a meeting in support of Labour, police protection was required to ensure the rally could go ahead.[6]

Labour also faced a challenge from the far left. The Communist Party of Great Britain was resolutely anti-Zionist and viewed the events of August 1929 as a legitimate anti-colonial revolt. Harry Pollitt stood as the Communist candidate and his election address strongly criticised the Balfour Declaration, and when asked whether he believed in Palestine for the Jews, Pollitt replied that he believed in ‘the world for the workers’.[7]

In the end, Labour held the seat but had its majority significantly reduced, with Janner finishing a strong second. Pollitt’s respectable performance indicated some Jewish voters were prepared to support an explicitly anti-Zionist party; a reminder that minority communities are not monolithic. In February 1931, Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald essentially annulled the White Paper, although as Paul Kelemen points out, the Whitechapel and St Georges by-election was not the main factor in this decision.[8]

Nevertheless, this case does demonstrate how for almost a century, Palestine has at times had significant implications in a British electoral context. The way the issue has featured, however, has dramatically changed, in conjunction with the make-up of the British electorate. For the duration of the Mandate years (1920-1948), British voters were by and large not sympathetic to the Arab Palestinian nationalist cause. But with the large-scale migration of South Asians, particularly Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Kashmiris, (along with broader shifts in public opinion) the Palestinians now have a supportive voting bloc in some parts of the UK. Indeed, the parliamentary constituency which now represents the area of Whitechapel has shifted from having a sizable Jewish population to becoming one of the largest British Muslim electorates.

Still, in these differing examples from different moments in history, we do see common threads: intra-party disputes; political leaders intervening in foreign policy driven primarily by domestic concerns; candidates challenging their own party leadership in order to secure elections; and the sudden electoral significance of otherwise disregarded minority communities—Jews in 1930 and Muslims today. More importantly, these instances serve as case studies that demonstrate how Britain’s past as a colonial power and its present status as an active player in the Middle East means that our understanding of the interplay between British political history and contemporary politics in Britain can never solely be confined to the local or national arena.

Dr Paul T. Simpson is an Academic Tutor in Modern History at the University of Sunderland. His PhD examined the Independent Labour Party and Palestine, c. 1917-1939.

Cover image: Jews flee the Old City of Jerusalem during the 1929 Palestine Riots. Source: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons


[1] Geoffrey Alderman, Modern British Jewry (Oxford, 1988), p. 268. 

[2] Jewish Chronicle, 28 November 1930.

[3] Hansard, House of Commons debates, 17 November 1930, vol. 245, col. 164.

[4] Jewish Chronicle, 28 November 1930.

[5] Elaine R. Smith, ‘East End Jews in Politics 1918-1939: A Study in Class and Ethnicity’, PhD Thesis, (University of Leicester, 1999), p. 192. 

[6] Joseph Green, A Social History of the Jewish East End in London, 1914-1939 (London, 1991), p. 435. 

[7] Elaine R. Smith, ‘East End Jews in Politics 1918-1939’, pp. 195-196.

[8] Paul Kelemen, The British Left and Zionism (Manchester, 2012), p. 23.

read more

From Popular Culture to Culture War: Free Speech and the British Press

Nps

In recent years, debates about ‘free speech’ have become ever-present in politics and the media, central to what has been called a ‘culture war’. Responding to this situation, a recent volume that assembles a diverse group of commentators, activists and academics – including a chapter from myself – focuses on what it calls The Free Speech Wars.

It examines how speech has and has not been controlled both historically and today, and the ways in which the concept of free speech has been weaponised or deployed as a bad faith argument by those wishing to commit harm. In the introduction, the volume’s editor, Charlotte Lydia Riley, summarises some of the insights the book offers, arguing:

“that free speech is often only available to those who are already powerful; that the people who shout the loudest about their speech being denied are still, at the end of the day, the ones whose voices carry the furthest. Freedom of speech is an essential right and a powerful duty, but it is not the only thing that matters”.

My own chapter explores these themes by examining one particular case study: the British press. This is an important subject as the press has both a vested interest in the debate due to the criticism the industry receives for its own harmful practices, and because the press is a major platform in which arguments about free speech take place and where ideas and rhetorical slogans are crafted and popularised.

The notion of freedom has been central to how the British press has presented itself ever since the emergence of what are recognisable as ‘newspapers’ in the seventeenth century. At that time it was undoubtedly an existential concern, given the efforts of the British state to censor what could be printed.[1] Famous figures such as John Wilkes became symbols of the need to fight for free speech, and the press has long presented itself as the ‘Fourth Estate’, with a supposed duty to hold the powerful to account.

Yet the context has changed immensely in the intervening centuries. From a time when a small number of journalists and publications were truly radical voices speaking to a relatively small number of readers, by the end of the nineteenth century a mass press had emerged.

With readerships reaching into the millions, owned by wealthy figures such as the press barons, and with links to powerful interests in the spheres of politics and business, the press itself – particularly the largest and most influential newspapers – now wielded immense power. Moreover, the majority of the press remained resolutely right-wing politically, which remains the case today.

With such large circulations, newspapers were able to set the agenda and pressurise politicians. This mass press was also a key element in the emergence of a ‘popular culture’, as important as books, films or music. Newspapers played a vital role in crafting notions of ‘common sense’ and a political and cultural language for their readers.

This new state of affairs begged the question – who would hold the press itself to account?

The central character of debates about press freedom changed during the twentieth century, with the 1960s serving as a pivotal moment. Beforehand, debates about free speech and the press tended to focus on notions of morality, respectability and obscenity, and the tone of newspaper’s critiques of authority figures. Afterwards, debates about press freedom tended to centre on the press’s representation of disadvantaged groups, whether this concerned stereotyping and discrimination or issues of privacy and intrusion into the personal sphere.

The longstanding demonisation of migrants and ethnic minorities in the pages of many of the most high-profile British newspapers, especially the tabloids, is one obvious example. Another is the News of the World’s notorious practice of phonehacking, also likely utilised by other newspapers. This targeted not just celebrities, but also regular members of the public who had been thrust into the public eye, such as the parents of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.

The press duly wheeled out all of the old arguments about free speech, the freedom of the press and the Fourth Estate. Newspapers presented themselves as the victims, ignoring the ways in which they had used their power and influence to harm others, their unethical – and even illegal – practices, and their frequent disregard for factual accuracy.

Although the phonehacking scandal led to the closure of the News of the World and some brief jailtime for a small number of perpetrators, most of those involved escaped censure and the Sun on Sunday was quickly launched by Rupert Murdoch’s News UK to replace the News of the World. Most damningly, the new industry regulator, IPSO, was again set up as a vehicle of self-regulation like its predecessors – and has been chaired by figures from News UK such as former political editor of the Sun, Trevor Kavanagh.

Murdoch has been central to another factor in ‘free speech’ becoming a central focus of much of the British press. His media organisations straddle both sides of the Atlantic (and far beyond). Much as Fox News has hosted reactionaries utilising notionally liberal values such as freedom and ‘free speech’ to provide cover for their regressive and discriminatory views and activities, so too have Murdoch’s newspapers in the UK – the Sun, The Times, and the Sunday Times.

This is part of a broader press environment where culture-war rhetoric has flourished, with constant alarmist articles about ‘snowflakes’ and PC culture, no-platforming and other supposed attacks against free speech on university campuses, and disingenuous claims that calling out racism, misogyny and homophobia is now the real bigotry and a threat to freedom – all of which are examined in The Free Speech Wars.

The history of the British press across the last century and a half has exemplified a broader societal shift from popular culture to culture war – and although the manner in which notions of free speech have been utilised has changed, they remain potent rhetorical tools. Free speech is a vitally important issue, especially at a time when authoritarianism is rising around the world and journalists in many countries are targeted with violence. The press is also clearly home to a diverse range of voices, including on the issue of free speech.

But the appeals to free speech offered by the press in Britain need to be treated with suspicion given the industry’s long history of hypocrisy over the issue and the various ways it has sought to weaponize the concept to justify its commercial imperatives and unethical behaviour. You can read my full chapter in the book for a more detailed account of how this unfolded.

Aaron Ackerley is a historian of Modern British and imperial history, focusing on politics, the media, and popular culture. He is also the assistant editor of this blog. You can find him on Twitter @AaronAckerley.

The Free Speech Wars is available now from Manchester University Press.


Cover image: A pile of newspapers secured with an iron chain.

[1] K. Williams, Read All About It!: A History of the British Newspaper (London, 2010), chs 1-3.

read more

A ‘Mirror’ up to Society: The Daily Mirror and British Public Opinion of the H-bomb, 1954-1958

1024px-_Ivy_Mike__atmospheric_nuclear_test_-_November_1952_-_Flickr_-_The_Official_CTBTO_Photostream

The rise of populism and subsequent ‘crisis of democracy’ in recent years has led to discussions regarding the detrimental effects of fake news and media-friendly politics. Within this narrative, ordinary citizens are portrayed as passive bystanders manipulated by a highly mediatized political culture.

However, this need not always be the case. Indeed, from the late 1950s, newspapers became increasingly preoccupied with providing a platform through which ‘ordinary’ citizens’ perceptions of democracy could be articulated. These ‘voices’ were then utilised by newspapers in their construction of new forms of political reporting, consequently redefining public opinion as a less elitist category that was accessible to a broader demographic.

The Daily Mirror provides a particularly good example. Initiated by its change of ownership in the 1930s, in order to appeal to their new, working-class readership, the Mirror became increasingly focused on providing an outlet through which their constructions of the ‘voice of the people’ could be articulated. This was particularly the case with the hydrogen bomb (H-bomb).

In April 1954, the Mirror published a double-page spread on the new H-bomb. Alongside the Mirror’sfirst depiction of ‘The Monster’, the public were invited to respond to two questions regarding their opinion on H-bomb testing.[1] The H-bomb enquiry revealed that 92% of participants were in favour of a suspension of the test explosions.[2] The Mirror then used the results from the public polls to inform its own discourse.[3]

William Connor (Cassandra), a columnist at the Mirror known for his anti-establishment rhetoric, was commissioned to write an article reflecting public distaste for the bomb.He used graphic and emotive language to present the H-bomb as an apocalyptic threat. Children dear, I’m afraid it’s those grown-ups again’, Cassandra wrote before going on to explain the bomb in a patronising manner, as if talking to a child.[4]

As a newspaper’s intention is not to alienate its readership, we can assume that this article was written as an ‘in-joke’ between the Mirror and its readers as, at least from what the public poll had revealed, both shared the same opinion of the bomb.

On the 2nd March 1955, the Mirror published an article revealing that Britain had ‘started to make the H-Bomb.[5] In contrast to the apocalyptic account of horror depicted in 1954, by March 1955, the H-bomb became a part of daily life. We see the normalisation of the H-bomb not only in the Mirror’s reporting style, but also within the ‘voice of the people’ constructed in their Live Letters newspaper segment.

‘I read some time ago that if an atom bomb were dropped in the polar regions, the ice barrier would be broken and that this would allow a warm current to flow round Britain and so give us a tropical climate. If this is so, why do we not have the atomic tests there instead of in Australia and this reap the benefit in climate?’[6]

Instead of a sense of horror, we see a blasé approach to the H-bomb – the implication being that the public accepted the necessity of the H-bomb and desired to make the best of a bad situation.

By 1957, the Mirror’s coverage of the H-Bomb changed again. Whereas previously the H-bomb was presented as either apocalyptic or everyday, by 1957 the apocalyptic had become the everyday.[7] This was also echoed in the nature of public opinion the newspaper published.

‘After constantly reading about the horrible hydrogen bomb, I wish that someone would invent another bomb – the H for Happiness bomb’ wrote one reader.[8]

 The following week, another member of the public wrote a response:

‘I suggest that everybody in this world today could, if he wished, explode his own miniature bomb… In this day and age, however, I have found that any act of kindness… is taken for a sign of weakness’.[9]

These sentiments were echoed in another letter entitled ‘If Angels Weep’:

‘I have my own theory about the rainy weather we’ve been having… Could it be that the angels are weeping now – not from laughter, but with bitter tears for us poor so-and-so’s who could be so happy but are being led on to the brink of misery and destruction by the big ‘eads?’[10]

On top of a clear sense of sadness and an acknowledgement that it was a part of everyday life, there is also a sense of disappointment in their political leaders and an acceptance of the inevitability that the H-bomb would bring destruction and misery to Britain – a far cry from seeing the H-bomb as an opportunity to improve the British climate.

Through analysis of the Mirror’s shifting communicative practices and constructions of the ‘voice of the people’, it is reasonable to suggest that the way people related to the H-bomb changed over time. Tracing shifts such as these will allow us to enrich current study of popular opinion conveyed through mass media by historically contextualising the current, presentist narrative of a ‘crisis in democracy’.

By accessing the mediated perceptions of ‘ordinary’ people through analysis of the outlets that constructed their voices in the public sphere, we can move away from the top-down approach that dominates the study of postwar political culture whilst critically reflecting on the role new media plays in shaping our current political climate.

These concerns will be explored in the ‘Voice of the People’ project, which aims to put the voices of the ordinary citizen centre stage in the discussion of postwar political culture, by deconstructing the ways in which journalists brought the ‘voice of the people’ into the public sphere. From this, we will be able to provide insight into the changing notions of public opinion, whilst tracing the impact that has upon both journalistic and political culture.

Jamie Jenkins is a PhD student at Radboud University working on the Voices of the People project. Her research investigates how the media constructed popular expectations of democracy in Great Britain between the end of the Second World War and the 1980s. She tweets @jenkinsleejamie


Cover image: Photo of ‘Ivy Mike’ (yield 10.4 mt) – an atmospheric nuclear test conducted by the U.S. at Enewetak Atoll on 1 November 1952. It was the world’s first successful hydrogen bomb.

[1] ‘The Monster’, Daily Mirror, April 2nd 1954, p.1.

[2] ‘The People’s Verdict – Churchill Must Act’, Daily Mirror, 5th April 1954, p. 1

[3] M. Conboy, ‘How The War Made the Mirror’, Media History: Newspapers, War and Society 23.3-4 (2017), p. 455.

[4] Cassandra, ‘A child’s guide to the bomb’, Daily Mirror, 6th April 1954, p. 9

[5] ‘Churchill: Another ‘Farewell’ Performance’, Daily Mirror, Wednesday 2nd March 1955 pp.1-3.

[6] ‘Live Letters’, Daily Mirror, 15th November 1956, p. 18.

[7] This personalisation of the H-bomb was a common theme within Mirror articles at the time. This was reiterated by their frequent use of a map of the UK depicting the scale of the potential destruction. The public were able to visualise the impact of the H-bomb on a national level, whilst also placing themselves as individuals on the map. Therefore, by 1957 the public was no longer relating to the bomb as a potential threat, but rather as an actuality.

[8] ‘Live Letters’, Daily Mirror, 24th February 1958, p. 14.

[9] ‘Live Letters’, Daily Mirror, 6th March 1958, p. 18

[10] ‘Live Letters’ Daily Mirror, 10th October, p. 18.

read more

The Politics of Churchill’s Statue

big-ben-4019424_960_720

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/

read more
1 2 3
Page 1 of 3