British History

Rex Britanniae?- The national identity of King Edward I in four maps


‘Is it the end of the world?’ asked one thirteenth-century Welsh poet, when English forces stormed into Wales in 1277. The key instigator was King Edward I, whose campaigns of 1277-1307 were fundamental for how Scottish, Welsh and English people identified themselves. By mapping Edward’s movements, we can investigate how he promoted a singular British national identity, a Rex Britanniae, provoking consideration over how debates regarding sovereignty and self-belonging in the thirteenth-fourteenth centuries are remarkably similar to those of the twenty-first century – calls for Scottish and Welsh independence are certainly no novelty.


A key element of Edward’s approach to kingship was Arthurianism, particularly for Wales. Taking advantage of a popular thirteenth-century obsession, Edward saw himself as the mythical king’s successor. [1]  That he and Queen Eleanor attended the reinternment of the bones of ‘Arthur’ and ‘Guinevere’ just months after defeating the Welsh is non-coincidental. Whatever its plausibility, this was symbolic, a truly political performance; Edward sought to embody Arthur as legitimate overlord of Wales.

Yet ideological mastery was insufficient. Magnificent castles such as Beaumaris and Harlech were catalysts for Anglicisation, visually documenting the physical and metaphorical permanence of English conquest. [2] As Map 1 shows, these castles were also strategically significant – Rhuddlan as an army base, Caernarfon as a supply centre. The administrative role of castles – the castle boroughs – was the machinery behind Rex Britanniae. Realised through the Statute of Wales (Rhuddlan Castle, 1284) explicitly English administrative cadre were imprinted onto boroughs.

Often called ‘Anglicisation from above’, ‘the first colonial institution’, the Statute never aimed to create unity between English and Welsh law. [3] It represented the tenacity of Edward’s Arthurian ‘United Kingdom’ ideology and the battle over sovereignty, climaxing in large-scale, coordinated attacks on Edwardian castles, namely in 1294. [4]

Map 1 – Edward I’s Welsh campaigns. I plotted the London-St. David’s route, encompassing various major castles. Copyright @Charlotte Tomkins


While Wales had no single ruler and yet was relatively ethnically homogenous, Scotland was politically united under the Scottish kings, despite being a melting pot of Brittonic, Gaelic and Viking elements, further complicated by the English-speaking population inhabiting South-Eastern Scotland. [5] Yet the division between England and Scotland was primarily not cultural but political, and fluid, made remarkably clear in Map 2. Here, a tiny Scotland is presented as a “land beyond the sea”, connected to an English mainland only by Stirling bridge.

Map 2 – Matthew Paris’ Map of Britain, (c. 1250).

Yet no bridge would stop Edward. Arthurianism was most powerful regarding Wales, but it was certainly not irrelevant for Scotland – a multiplicity of Arthurian myths existed. The hereditary right of Arthur’s successors to rule Britain in its entirety was central to Arthurian territorial ideologies. Viewing the Anglo-Scottish border as a purely internal division, Edward used this ideology to try to absorb Scotland, like Wales, into the inalienable royal fisc – the Crown’s taxation and revenue source.

Castles were again essential in realising this and the castles of Scotland and Northern England became key battlegrounds between these two realms. Tensions escalated from 1290, partly over Edward’s determination that all royal fortresses come under his custody.  What was for Edward a logical step ensuring Scotland’s security was a denial of sovereignty for the Scots. These castles were the ‘instruments of raw power’, whose loss was catastrophic. [6]

The border-lands saw some of the most vicious attempts to subdue Scotland: for example, the 1296 bloodbath, the Battle of Berwick. Edward had captured the castle, massacred its townspeople, and garrisoned the fortress – so, what did this mean for Rex Britanniae? Tensions with Scotland’s heir John Balliol were already fraught, but Edward’s actions, combined with the withdrawal of his support for Balliol’s claim to the Scottish throne, resulted in Balliol’s formal renunciation of his oath to Edward.

Map 3 – Edward I’s Scottish campaigns. Note the importance of the border-lands as key entry, exit and fortification points. Copyright @Charlotte Tomkins

Berwick was a watershed moment, where Balliol confronted the hard truth – his enthronement was only ever temporary; where Rex Britanniae was performed and destroyed as Edward gambled with Balliol’s loyalty for the motive of reducing Scotland to a vassal-state of England. [7]  Revolts from 1296  – which Map 3 shows Edward’s efforts to put down – simply demonstrate that a shared Scottish identity was being strengthened. [8]

The King in Motion

Edward’s attempts to realise a Rex Britanniae depended on impregnable, looming castles – but it also depended on almost ceaseless movement. These campaigns can be drawn on conventional static maps. But by plotting his known locations and dynamically projecting them onto a map we can see – for the first time – the rhythm of Edward’s movements and their consequences, watching as he gathers forces and builds a consensus in England, before striking north and west.

Map 4: click to access moving images and all data

Viewing Edward’s reign in this innovative way allows us to not only visualise his efforts to become the rex Britannie, but also to begin to quantify his movements, highlighting the importance of warfare and conquest throughout Edward’s reign. The statistics below elaborate on the movements in Map 4 :

Figure 1 – During peacetime years alone Edward spent 116 days in Berwick-upon-Tweed, surpassed only by Windsor (157) and Westminster (956), delineating its strategic, ideological and political importance.  (J. E. Crockford, ‘The Itinerary of Edward I of England: Pleasure, Piety and Governance’ (Turnhout, 2016), p. 245.)

Edward’s death in 1307 made hopes of achieving Arthur’s united Britain impossible. Edward’s success was not linear; while the Anglicisation of Wales was long-lasting, the Scottish conquest ultimately failed.  What we can say, however, is that Edward’s ideology of a United Kingdom still remained influential even after his death; even now people are still debating the very concept.

Charlotte Tomkins is in her final year of an undergraduate history degree at the University of Sheffield, with ambitions to continue the subject at MA and PhD level. She recently completed the Sheffield University Research Experience (SURE) where she examined the links between the itinerary of Edward I and his pursuit of a single kingdom, a Great Britain and a United Kingdom, under his kingship, using databases and cartography. She focused on how castles were at the heart of Edward’s vision, and how debates over British national identity are not contemporary; they have been heated since the medieval period and earlier.

[1] D. Jones, The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England (London, 2012), p 98.

[2] R. R. Davies, ‘Edward I and Wales’ in T. Herbert and G. E. Jones (eds), Edward I and Wales (Cardiff, 1988), p. 1.

[3] Ibid., p. 2.; Jones, The Plantagenets, p. 314.; M. Prestwich, Edward I (London, 1988), pp. 205-206.

[4] M. Morris, Castle: A History of the Buildings that shaped Medieval Britain (London, 2012), p. 134.

[5] M. Morris, Edward I: A Great and Terrible King (London, 2009), p. 241.

[6] Ibid., pp. 236-237.

[7] P. Parker, History of Britain in Maps (Glasgow, 2017), p. 26.

[8] P. Traquair, Freedom’s Sword: Scotland’s Wars of Independence (London, 1998), p. 13.

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A Great British Welcome? Unlearned lessons from the Kindertransport


British collective memory largely recognises the Kindertransport (Children’s Transport) policy as a point of national pride, believed by many to be ‘the zenith of…interwar international humanitarianism.’[1] This policy was instituted, – albeit reluctantly – by Chamberlain’s Conservative government as a reaction to the Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass) of November 1938, where Jewish homes, businesses, and buildings were ransacked across Germany in an act of extreme racial hatred. The Kindertransport allowed 10,000 Jewish children to take refuge in Britain to escape the persecution of the Third Reich.

Although the policy appears noble and humanitarian on the surface, there were several caveats. Firstly, the parents of these young Jewish refugees were not permitted to accompany them. This was due to the British government’s fears of developing a ‘Jewish problem in the United Kingdom’: this supposed ‘problem’ being that too many Jewish people taking refuge in the country would lead to overpopulation and employment issues.[2] Therefore, only allowing unaccompanied children to take refuge was believed to be ‘more palatable to British public sensibilities’.[3]

Furthermore, Jewish refugees were only allowed to enter the country on the condition that their escape from racial discrimination would not be a ‘financial burden on the public’, as it would cost £50 per child to safely cross the borders and house on their arrival. In an attempt to exonerate the former government from their questionable treatment of Jewish refugees, the current government – via The National Archives’ educational entry on the Kindertransport –provide the rather tenuous excuse that ‘few households could pay the sum…required’. Instead, this comes off as little more than apologia for inaction towards racial discrimination and is akin to our current government’s own treatment of refugees in the present day.

Ultimately, it was up to Jewish organisations and benefactors to foot the bill themselves to ensure the safety of these children.[4] Support was quite limited at the start of the program, with the intake of refugees only gaining further traction from Gentile (non-Jewish) groups once they learned that the refugees ‘were not all Jewish.’[5] Those who did manage to escape via the Kindertransport were not all guaranteed hospitality and care on arrival, with many being placed in refugee camps and youth hostels. Max Dickson, a German-Jewish child of the Kindertransport, recorded his experiences in refugee camps in his memoirs: ‘[There was] No one to tuck you in and give you a hug or say “I love you”. I think many of us cried ourselves to sleep those first three months.’[6] Another Kindertransport refugee, Bob Kirk, was separated from his parents in Hanover in May 1939. Kirk, along with 200 other children on his train, were led to believe that their parents would be joining them in England once their papers had been approved: ‘My parents were so intent on not making it seem like a parting that they didn’t include anything which might suggest we wouldn’t see each other again.’ Kirk’s parents were deported to Riga in 1941 and never returned. Regular discrimination, fear, and loneliness were all part and parcel of the life of a Jewish refugee, and one may already begin to start drawing significant parallels with the poor treatment experienced by contemporary refugees.

Many continue to perpetuate an idea of the Second World War as an almost-biblical battle between good and evil, with Britain acting as the righteous ‘saviours’ of Jews under threat from Nazism.  This approach makes for a compelling narrative but is a gross misrepresentation of reality. Contrary to popular nostalgia, the notion of British war-time humanitarianism in relation to refugees is questionable at best and offensively sanitised at worst. Whilst on the proverbial ‘right side of history’ in opposing the horrors of National Socialism, the British government was indifferent, if not outright hostile towards Jewish refugees, which is – depressingly – quite relevant to the current government’s own treatment of refugees.

In popular British culture, many prefer to select specific examples of British humanitarianism and ascribe them to the nation at large. This is clear in the case of Sir Nicholas Winton, dubbed ‘the British Oskar Schindler’ for his instrumental role in evacuating 669 children from Prague. Winton, however, was arguably the exception rather than the rule, and not representative of the British population.[7] Despite this, Theresa May used his story in her resignation speech in May 2019; May recalled that Winton, a long-time constituent of hers in Maidenhead, had given her some advice prior to his death, supposedly telling her that ‘Compromise is not a dirty word. Life depends on compromise.’ This quote is rather unusual, as it is completely incongruous with Winton’s actions during the Second World War. Lord Alf Dubs, himself a refugee of the Kindertransport and one of the 669 saved by Winton, believed May’s words to be ‘an insult’ to Winton’s character:

What [Winton] demonstrated was not compromise. What he demonstrated was tenacity of purpose, a determination to battle with the British government, to battle with the Nazis, to do what he had to do…She’s using a man who is absolutely iconic for the wonderful things he did and the lives he saved…to justify compromise. That seems to me quite wrong, and a bit of an abuse.’

Despite May’s questionable anecdote, actions speak louder than words. A year after Winton’s death, May (alongside 293 other MPs), voted to turn away 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees from Syria.

Indifference and hostility towards refugees continues to be an issue. Of course, our politicians, pundits, and popular figures will happily deploy the Second World War, selecting instances of humanitarianism where convenient, while failing (or choosing not) to see the other parallels between past and present.

Today, politicians are increasingly taking harder lines against refugees to win votes. Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently vowed to ‘crack down’ on those who ‘abused [the UK’s] hospitality’, hoping it would ‘restore public faith’ in the British immigration system. Johnson has also pledged to ‘make all immigrants speak English’, stating that ‘too often there are parts of our country…where English is not spoken by some people as their first language and that needs to be changed’.

Johnson’s and May’s attitudes clearly demonstrate that the current British establishment have learned very little, if anything, from the Kindertransport. The passing of the Kindertransport policy in 1938 was, of course, partially a positive action for the government to take; this does not mean, however, that the negative aspects should be ignored. The government should be ashamed of their role in the Kindertransport, but through the power of historical revisionism and compelling narrative, they have been sanitised and falsely idealised as being the driving force behind this humanitarian effort, instead of a roadblock against it. This has effectively given contemporary politicians a free pass to continue treating refugees with contempt, whilst still claiming the likes of Winton where convenient.

This self-congratulatory revisionism of so-called ‘British humanitarianism’ must be challenged, and those who continue to peddle such history for political gain must be held to account. Government actions, no matter how positive they may seem on the surface, should not be blindly praised without digging a little deeper first.

Owen A. Jones is a final-year History undergraduate at the University of Sheffield. He recently completed the Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE), conducting research on anti-Semitism and Jewish refugees of war during the early twentieth century. His research also examines relevant parallels to the present-day refugee crisis and Britain’s continued treatment of refugees. You can find him on Twitter @OwenAdamJones.

[1] L. E. Brade and R. Holmes, ‘Troublesome Sainthood: Nicholas Winton and the Contested History of Child Rescue in Prague, 1938–1940’, History and Memory 29.1 (2017), p. 5.

[2] B. Wasserstein, Britain and the Jews of Europe, 1939-1945 (Oxford, 1979), pp. 10-11.

[3] Brade and Holmes, ‘Troublesome Sainthood’, p. 5.

[4] C. Holmes, John Bull’s Island: Immigration and British Society, 1871–1971 (London, 1988), p. 142.

[5] ibid., p. 143.

[6] M. Dickson, The Memories of Max Dickson formerly Max Dobriner (Sheffield, 2010), pp. 6-7.

[7] Brade and Holmes, ‘Troublesome Sainthood’, p. 5.

Image Credit: ‘“The Children of the Kindertransport”, Hope Square, Liverpool Street Station, London.’ (Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0,, available at:

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‘Maybe it’s medieval?’ – Comparing Modern TV and Film against the Medieval Morality Play


How many times have you watched a TV show or film and thought the narrative seemed vaguely familiar? From the classic ‘boy meets girl’ rom-com story arc, to the theory that The Lion King is just a rip-off of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I think it’s fair to say that stories often repeat themselves.

I recently completed a SURE (Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience) Project; these provide undergraduate students an opportunity to research an area of special interest. I chose to look at morality plays and what they tell us about the impact of the Black Death on Medieval life and culture.

I found that the approaches taken by these medieval playwrights were not too dissimilar from the techniques used by modern screenwriters. By exploring two literary techniques: tragicomedy and the ‘Shoulder Angel’ I compared these medieval morality plays to modern day film and television to further understand how they differ in consequence to the cultural climate of the period.

Although these plays are an established part of academic study, the narratives of a late-15th-century morality play is not generally well-known. This popular type of play followed the story of ‘mankind’, a single character who represented a typical individual living in medieval society, following his birth, life and final salvation on his day of judgement. Most of the plays I studied originated from East Anglia, but there were other plays from cities such as Chester and York that also dealt with similar themes of religion and death.

The plays were intentionally metaphorical, with their purpose being to give reassurance to those living in the aftermath of the Black Death, as its cultural impact lasted for centuries after its slow decline in the 1350s. Death was witnessed by each individual, as they lost many family members and friends. Thus, these plays aimed to educate their audience, showing that people would reach heaven if they lead a Christian life.

Comedy and Death: A match made in heaven?

‘Mankind’ (suspected to have been written 1465-1470), was considered one of the most popular morality plays of the medieval period. This was thought to be due to its focus on entertainment and comedy taking centre stage over an educational directive.

Similarly, ‘Bruce Almighty’ (2003) – a film about a man who believes he can do a better job than God and in response is gifted omnipotent power by God himself – is an example of a film that pushes a moral message, whilst being comedic.

The morality play argues that a repentance of sins would lead to a control over life, as they could control their afterlife. During a time were life and death were extremely unpredictable Christianity would have offered a reassurance to a medieval audience, showing that they were in control of their future, even if they couldn’t be in control of their death.

Where ‘Mankind’ teaches an audience to repent of their sins and live a moral life, ‘Bruce Almighty’ teaches an audience they should take control of their own lives, and not expect others (such as God) to fix their problems. During a time where life and death were extremely unpredictable, Christianity provided a comforting solution by suggesting that through repenting of their sins they could control their life even in death by ensuring their path to heaven.

Specifically, in its use of comedy, ‘Mankind’ makes a mockery of the main character during his fall into sin. This juxtaposition of comedy and darker themes is seen in another Jim Carrey film, ‘The Truman Show’ (1998). If you took the comedy (or Jim Carrey) out of the film, it would just be harrowing. An hour and forty-three minutes of watching a man have his entire reality taken away from him, to find out it was just a moneymaking scheme.

The use of comedy in both modern films and morality play helps to keep an audience engaged, as death for medieval people was a heavy theme; by using comedy the playwrights could more successfully communicate their moral message.

The Perseverance of the ‘Shoulder Angel’.

The plot device of the ‘shoulder angel’ is most commonly seen today where a protagonist has a good character and an evil character both attempting to persuade the protagonist down a certain path.

This technique was also used in another morality play, ‘The Castle of Perseverance’ (1440), with its use of 15 good and bad characters. More recently, this technique has been seen in the Amazon original, ‘Good Omens’ (2019), with the two protagonists being an angel and a devil.

Although there are some clear differences in the narratives, both stories follow the concept that both good and evil are present in the world. Therefore, it is our own choices that will lead us down a good or evil path. During the 15th century, this may have provided reassurance, as the plays appear to be demonstrating to the audiences that they are in control of their lives, despite the mysterious and unstoppable figure of death being ever-present in their lives, caused by the Black Death.

The idea of being guided by angels is another technique seen in some of the most recognisable films, often ones that are cemented into our Christmas Traditions, like ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (1946). In many ways, it appears like a modern-day morality play, as it teaches the audience to be aware of the impact they have on the world as well as the people within it.

Firstly, both the play and film follow one man’s entire life. Secondly, the character of an angel who shows the protagonist how his good deeds have affected the world, allowing him to see the importance of his own life.

The most important part of morality plays was a happy ending. This also demonstrates the legacy of the Black Death, as even when a character reached death it is shown as a rite-of-passage where they were ultimately forgiven for their sins.

Similarly, the end of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ shows the protagonist gaining a greater understanding and appreciation of life, ending on the note that they will live their life differently – is that not the same as what the authors of the morality play want their audience to do after the curtain closes?

In summary, I think it’s important to note how all storytelling has a message. The message of morality plays to live a Christian life may not be entirely relevant to the majority of people today, but the general sentiment of living your life with an awareness of mortality suggesting that we should live with purpose and accountability of our actions is a concept audiences can still relate to.

Thus, the reoccurrence of these similar tropes suggests that the stories we choose to tell today may not be so dissimilar from those written 500 years ago. Despite huge differences in values and material conditions, the similarities deserve serious study too.

Natalya Edwards is a History undergraduate student at the University of Sheffield. She recently completed the Sheffield Undergraduate Research Project which provides undergraduate students an opportunity to research an area of special interest, in order to provide insight and experience for postgraduate research. In her project she chose to look at morality plays and what they can tell us about the impact of the Black Death on medieval life and culture.

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Why Naomi Wolf misinterpreted evidence from the Old Bailey Online


Readers may be aware of the recent furore over Naomi Wolf’s misinterpretation of Old Bailey trial evidence in her book, Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love, in support of her argument that executions for sodomy increased at the Old Bailey in the second half of the nineteenth century.  Wolf cited in particular the case of Thomas Silver, tried for ‘an unnatural offence’ in 1857, where the Old Bailey Online gives the punishment sentence as ‘Death Recorded’.  As Richard Ward, quoted in the Guardian, notes, this term meant the opposite of what Wolf thought.  First used in 1823, the term ‘death recorded’ was used in cases where the judge wished to record a sentence of death, as he was legally required to do, while at the same time indicating his intention to pardon the convict.  In fact, if Wolf had clicked on the ‘related sources’ link from this trial on the Old Bailey website to the records in the associated website the Digital Panopticon (a massive collection of criminal justice data which traces the lives of Old Bailey convicts following their convictions), she would have seen that following his conditional pardon Silver was sentenced to penal servitude for three years, and, two and a half years later, was released on a prison licence (an early form of parole).

There are two lessons to be learned from this debacle, first about the use of online historical sources, and, second about how the English judicial system worked in the nineteenth century, in particular the differences between courtroom sentences and the actual punishments convicts received.

The first point is obvious, but needs to be made. When searching for evidence online, it is all too easy to pay insufficient attention to context and to fail to follow up links to related information. Nowhere in this very short trial report (censored, like all Old Bailey trial reports of sodomy after 1785), does the word ‘executed’ appear.  In fact, this webpage has included since March 2018 (which admittedly may have been late in Wolf’s research), a link at the top of the page (as noted above) to the Digital Panopticon, which provides evidence of Silver’s actual imprisonment and early discharge. And the ‘Historical Background’ pages on the Old Bailey website include an explanation of the differences between courtroom sentences and the actual punishments convicts received.

This is the second, historically significant, point: convicts at the Old Bailey frequently did not receive the punishments to which they were sentenced.  While this general point has been known in its broad outlines for some time, it is a central research theme of Simon Devereaux’s recent project, Capital Convictions at the Old Bailey, 1730-1837, which tracked down the actual penal outcomes for all capital convicts up to 1837, and a key research finding of the Digital Panopticon project, which researched the outcomes of all defendants convicted at the Old Bailey between 1780 and 1870. This research demonstrates that convicts sentenced to death and transportation often did not experience these punishments, and even those sentenced to imprisonment remained in prison for less time than prescribed by their sentence. The English judicial system was permeated by the exercise of judicial discretion, in which judges, the Home Office, and even penal officers shaped actual punishments to meet the perceived significance and circumstances of each case.

In the case of the death penalty, there was a long term decline in the proportion and number of convicts who were actually executed.  The proportion of Old Bailey capital convicts executed fell from 43.5% in the 1780s to 10.4% between 1810 and 1837, by which point reforms to the penal code had led to a sharp reduction in capital offences: after 1837, the only offences punishable by death were murder, infanticide, wounding, rape, treason, robbery, burglary, arson, and sodomy.  In practice, however, the only Old Bailey convicts actually executed after 1837 were murderers (and even 40% of these were pardoned).

The penal environment of those convicted of sodomy in the second half of the nineteenth century was thus one in which the death penalty was not a realistic possibility. Other forms of persecuting homosexuality certainly remained, and may have even worsened, but the cruellest punishments were confined to an earlier period.  The criminal persecution of sodomy has a long history.  As the Homosexuality page on the Old Bailey Online indicates, there were waves of prosecutions throughout the eighteenth century, leading to executions and near-death maulings by crowds on the pillory.  This continued into the next century: a search of the Digital Panopticon database shows that fourteen men convicted of sodomy were executed between 1803 and 1835.  Fortunately, however, punishment by execution and the pillory stopped there: James Pratt and John Smith, both executed on 27 November 1835, were the last men convicted of sodomy at the Old Bailey to meet this horrible fate.

I’d like to thank Tim Hitchcock, Sharon Howard and Richard Ward for their contributions.

Robert Shoemaker is Professor of Eighteenth-Century British history. His main interests lie in social and cultural history, particularly urban history, gender history, and the history of crime, justice, and punishment, and in the use of digital technologies in historical research. He is co-director, with Professor Tim Hitchcock at the University of Hertfordshire and Professor Clive Emsley of the Open University, of the Old Bailey Proceedings Online, which created a fully searchable edition of the entire run of published accounts of trials which took place at the Old Bailey from 1674 to 1913, and, with Hitchcock, London Lives, 1690-1800: Crime, Poverty and Social Policy in the Metropolis, a fully searchable edition of 240,000 manuscript records and fifteen datasets which makes it possible to compile biographies of eighteenth-century Londoners.

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Old Prejudices, New Debates: J.A. Hobson and Anti-Semitism


“It is, of course, disconcerting, perhaps even surprising, for those who expect anti-Semites to fit a certain character type, and to emerge from a certain place on the extreme right-wing of the ideological spectrum, to find what appears to be a strain of anti-Semitism in the writings of this otherwise humane, left-leaning social theorist.”[1]

The quote above is from an analysis of the works of the late 19th and early 20th social theorist and ‘economic heretic’ John Atkinson Hobson which evaluated whether it is fair to label him an anti-Semite, and the nature and the extent of his anti-Semitic statements.[2]

Similar questions recently resurfaced, sparked by a column in The Times that focused on how in 2011 Jeremy Corbyn provided a foreword for a reprint of Hobson’s Imperialism: A Study (1902). Hobson’s analysis of the underlying dynamics of imperialism garnered widespread attention upon its release, and over the following decades it became a key work in the anti-imperialist canon. Indeed, its influence stretched from liberals to Bolsheviks.[3] It thus seems unsurprising that Corbyn – a self-identified anti-imperialist – would lend his support to the book.

However, the focus of The Times piece was a specific passage in Imperialism – and other lengthier sections in Hobson’s wider corpus – that suggest an anti-Semitic mindset.[4] This material was brought to attention to support the long-running claim that Jeremy Corbyn and sections of the Labour Party are either anti-Semitic or at least ignorant or uncaring about the manner in which anti-Semitic tropes are reproduced by some on the left, often as part of critiques such as of the societally detrimental impacts of the financial sector or the Israel and Palestine conflict. The case of Hobson provides some useful parallels.

Fittingly, much of the current debate between historians unfolded in the pages of the Guardian, a newspaper Hobson had been closely linked to.[5] He became a close confidante of the newspaper’s longstanding editor C.P. Scott, acted as the Guardian’s correspondent during the Boer War, and continued to contribute articles over the following decades, as well as regularly being sought for advice by members of the editorial team.

Hobson, C.P. and L.T. Hobhouse – the liberal sociologist – were also key figures in the emergence of the New Liberalism at the end of the 19th century. This was an attempt to go beyond the classical liberalism of the Victorian period, redefining the state as a means of enabling greater freedom and individual agency by mitigating the destructive effects of poverty and unequal opportunity.[6] Their efforts played a key role in helping lay the foundations for the socially progressive policies of David Lloyd George and forged ties between many New Liberals and the social democrats and socialists of the Labour Party, which eventually resulted in the post-Second World War welfare state. Aside from his influential analysis of imperialism, Hobson also provided key contributions such as the concept of a ‘living wage’ and his theory of underconsumption.

An op ed in the Guardian criticised Corbyn for providing the foreword to Imperialism without denouncing its anti-Semitic passages and Hobson’s similar statements in other works, while Miles Taylor argued that “antisemitism is inseparable from [Hobson’s] attack on imperialism”. Robert Saunders argued that Hobson was “viciously anti-Semitic”, and that although we should not ignore this aspect of Hobson’s thought “it may be possible to detach his more valuable insights from the anti-Semitic poison coursing through them”.

Donald Sassoon and Tristram Hunt stated that it was reductive to frame Hobson’s work through the lens of anti-Semitism, arguing that such passages only constituted a tiny segment of his written output and were marginal to his wider arguments. Moreover, it was pointed out that many at the time shared such views – spanning both the right and the left.[7] Abigail Green argued that the anti-Semitic passages deserve to be foregrounded precisely because of this wider cultural context.

Although anti-Semitism was deeply embedded in right-wing politics, it was also entrenched in sections of the left and the Labour movement. It was also present among fellow ‘economic heretics’ that are hard to categorise such as Major Douglas and those that supported his ‘Social Credit’ programme, and prominent critic of the gold standard Arthur Kitson.[8] Many of these groups and individuals reproduced and fixated on anti-Semitic ideas more often as time passed.[9]

As the two most in-depth assessments of Hobson’s possible anti-Semitism have shown, Hobson did not conform to the typical model of the anti-Semite,[10] and, contrary to many others at the time, his prejudice appears to have lessened and eventually disappeared from his later work. Allett suggests the pivotal moment was the Boer War and the understanding of intolerance Hobson gained from his analysis of jingoism.[11]

However, Hobson’s turn away from anti-Semitism did not result in him publicly denouncing it.[12] Moreover, although Hobson became an ardent opponent of Nazism, his championing of economic explanations for its emergence only served to help obscure the anti-Semitism that lay at the heart of the ideology.[13]

The example of Hobson shows that it is possible to expunge problematic and harmful tropes from otherwise vital analyses. But it also demonstrates that this is not enough. Prejudice and harmful scapegoating need to be resisted, and personal failings on such matters should be acknowledged.

Geoffrey Alderman has convincingly argued that Corbyn is not an anti-Semite, pointing to his long history of supporting Jewish communal initiatives. Rather, Corbyn’s anti-Zionism and his antipathy towards imperialism and the financial sector likely explain his lack of effort to tackle anti-Semitism.

Important critiques are undermined when they are infiltrated by anti-Semitic tropes, prejudice and conspiracism, as the cases of Hobson, Kitson, Douglas and many others demonstrate. Allowing such ideas to propagate is unacceptable, and combating them is especially vital during periods of rising intolerance such as the early 20th century and, indeed, today. Hobson should not be defined by the anti-Semitic content in his earlier works. But the insights to be gained from exploring his relationship to the wider patterns of prejudice of his time should not be neglected either.

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.

[1] J. Allett, ‘New Liberalism, Old Prejudices: J.A. Hobson and the “Jewish Question”’, Jewish Social Studies, 49.2 (1987), p. 99.

[2] The designation ‘economic heretic’ is taken from Hobson’s autobiography, and signifies the radical nature of many of ideas. Although he had aspirations to become an economist, Hobson was shunned by the academic economics community because of his criticisms of orthodox approaches.

[3] It was especially influential among liberals that took a pro-Boer stance during the Boer War. Lenin and Trotsky were both impressed by Hobson’s analysis. T. Brewer, Marxist Theories of Imperialism: A Critical Survey (2nd edn, London, 1990), ch. 4.

[4] The offending passages are indeed damning. The key section in Imperialism is only a few lines long, but reproduced the long-standing idea of a Jewish financial conspiracy with its talk of “men of a single and peculiar race, who have behind them many centuries of financial experience”. Hobson’s analysis had been influenced by his time spent in South Africa, and his book on the Boer War from two years prior contained more extensive denunciations of Jewish financiers and businessmen and even more prejudicial language, such as referring to Jewish financiers as “parasites”. J.A. Hobson, Imperialism: A Study (London, 1902), p. 64; J.A. Hobson, The War in South Africa: Its Causes and Effects (London, 1900), p. 69. As will be discussed, Hobson’s earlier work is where nearly all of the anti-Semitic tropes he reproduced are to be found, with such ideas largely disappearing from this later writings.

[5] Although this had been when it was still called the Manchester Guardian.

[6] Such an approach is now often labelled Social Liberalism, to differentiate it from Socialism.

[7] It is worth mentioning that eugenics also had supporters across the political spectrum at this time – including many on the left – and there was often a direct link between eugenicist and anti-Semitic beliefs stemming from pseudoscientific racial science.

[8] R.D. Boyce, British Capitalism and the Crossroads (Cambridge, 1987), 64; J. Stingel, Social Discredit: Anti-Semitism, Social Credit, and the Jewish Response (Montreal, 2000).

[9] See, for example, how the anti-Semitism and the idea of a Jewish financial conspiracy went from being only appearing in passing to being a central concern in the work of Arthur Kitson. A. Kitson, The Money Problem (London, 1903); A. Kitson, A Fraudulent Standard: An Exposure of the Fraudulent Character of Our Monetary Standard with Suggestions for the Establishment of an Invariable Unit of Value (London, 1917).

[10] Colin Holmes perceptively analysed how central anti-Semitism was to Hobson’s thought, and concluded that although much of his earlier work did essentialise Jewish people and reproduced conspiracy theories about ‘Jew power’ in a manner similar to widespread discourses at the time, overall “it would be dangerous to regard Hobson as prejudiced against Jews in the classical sense; the indications are that he did not possess a hostility towards them which was central to the economy of his psyche”. C. Holmes, ‘J.A. Hobson and the Jews’, in C. Holmes (ed.), Immigrants and Minorities in British Society (London, 1978), p. 144; Allett, ‘New Liberalism, Old Prejudices’.

[11]  As he states: “Hobson’s rethinking of the “Jewish Question” most likely came about as a result of his scrutinizing of the operation of prejudice in others. By trying to penetrate the mind of the Jingoist, Hobson appears to have gained fresh insight into his own prejudicial ways of thinking, as well as a new appreciation of the predicament of his victim, having suffered rude handling at several public meetings when trying to present his minority “pro-Boer” case.” Allett, ‘New Liberalism, Old Prejudices’, p. 110. However, it has also been pointed out that Hobson did slip back into using the same anti-Semitic tropes on at least one occasion when discussing financiers, in his 1931 book God and Mammon. W. Brustein, L. Roberts, The Socialism of Fools?: Leftist Origins of Modern Anti-Semitism (Cambridge, 2015), p. 185.

[12] Nor did he revise the offending passages in his earlier works in subsequent print editions.

[13] Allett, ‘New Liberalism, Old Prejudices’, p. 112.

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


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.

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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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