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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Stories

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A number of columnists and commentators have pointed to something disturbingly imperial in some of the arguments in favour of Brexit.[1] Few, however, have looked to the academic study of British national identity or imperial history for answers. By using the work of Paul Gilroy and Bill Schwarz as a lens through which to examine Brexit, we can better perceive the role British imperial history and memory has played in exacerbating the current political situation. Writing long before the 2016 EU referendum, both Gilroy and Schwarz analysed the place of Empire in constructions of British national and racial identity. However, their analyses also happened to contain what have become key features of Brexiteer rhetoric.

In his 2004 book, Postcolonial Melancholia (published in the UK under the title After Empire), Gilroy continued a conversation he had begun back in 1987 with his Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack. Perhaps most pertinent to the Brexit debate, Gilroy analysed Britain’s enduring obsession with the Second World War, summed up for him by ‘the brash motto’: ‘Two world wars and one world cup, doo dah, doo dah’.[2] For Gilroy, the broken record quality of the British collective memory was deeply bound up with decolonisation. The uncomfortable complexities of the imperial past ‘have been collapsed into the overarching figuration of Britain at war against the Nazis, under attack, yet stalwart and ultimately triumphant’.[3]

The image of Britain standing alone in the summer of 1940 has been constantly invoked by Brexit-supporting British ministers. Back in September last year, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt ‘warned’ the EU that if they attempted to force a bad deal on the Prime Minister they risked stirring Britain’s ‘“Dunkirk spirit”’.[4] Earlier in January of that year, a group of pro-Brexit politicians and campaigners were planning to meet with European Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels in order to warn him that Britain would resist a bad deal with ‘Churchillian “iron will”’.[5] The simultaneous denial of Britain’s imperial past and obsession with the Second World War can be seen in microcosm in recent controversies over Churchill himself.[6] He is always portrayed in his ‘finest hour’, for instance, and never during his many more reactionary, imperialist moments.

This fixation with the 1940s is significant for Gilroy because it points to what it does not – and cannot – express: prideful regret at the loss of Empire tinged with discomfort and shame about the actual record of imperial governance. Signs of this stifled colonial past sometimes slip out of the very same politicians who invoke Churchill and Dunkirk.[7] On a diplomatic visit to Myanmar in 2017, Churchill biographer and Brexiteer Boris Johnson was bizarrely unable to contain a recitation of Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘The Road to Mandalay’.[8] But as Gilroy noted, these postcolonial parapraxes can also be altogether darker, finding expression in the politics of xenophobia.[9]

The unspoken fear of being colonised or becoming a colony based on ‘the terrifying folk knowledge’ of what that actually means in practice, is expressed in a desire to expel immigrants and, in this case, shun Europe.[10] At one end this is behind the fears of Johnson and other Brexiteers who speak of Britain being doomed ‘to the status of a colony’ by a ‘bad’ withdrawal deal.[11] At the other, it can be seen in Leave.EU’s infamous ‘Breaking Point’ poster which attempted to conjure up dystopian images of Britain’s white population reduced to a minority, submerged by a black or brown ‘mass’.[12]

In his 2011 Memories of Empire, Volume 1: The White Man’s World, Bill Schwarz provides an account of the British experience of decolonisation. He argues that the highly racialised politics of British white settler colonies, especially Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), rebounded on the metropole. Settler political leaders like president of the Central African Federation Roy Welensky (1956-1963) and Southern Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith (1964-1979) portrayed their fellow settlers as authentic white Britons in conflict with out of touch, metropolitan liberal elite in league with black anti-colonial nationalists.[13] During the 1960s, the Conservative New Right, notably the Monday Club (founded 1961) and, infamously, Enoch Powell began to talk about an imagined British people in similar terms.[14] Schwarz writes that they came to believe that:

The governors of the land lived faraway… they were out of touch with the real feelings of the English people… and, wittingly or unwittingly, they were working to destroy the nation. The rulers, in other words, had become the enemies of all true English men and women.[15]

Though Powell and the Monday Club were reacting to post-war Commonwealth immigration, Schwarz’s summary of their arguments could easily apply to Theresa May’s recent controversial statement on Brexit.[16] More broadly, this colonial conception of a metropolitan liberal elite, out of touch and in league with the ‘other’, became a familiar epithet of the Leave campaign and pro-Brexit sections of the British press.[17] This perhaps unsurprising when many of the main spokespeople for the Leave campaign were born or raised in the white enclaves where this kind of politics developed, in countries like Zimbabwe, South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, and Uganda.[18]

The point of all this is not that academic writing on British imperialism and national identity can be used to prove that all Leave voters are racist or hanker for ‘good old days’ of British imperialism. The work of Gilroy and Schwarz helps reveal the un-exorcised ghosts of British imperialism lurking within the on-going campaign for Britain to leave the European Union. Whether in the talk of a ‘Dunkirk spirit’ or metropolitan liberal ‘Enemies of the People’, the morbid symptoms of a nation that has failed to reckon with its past are readily observable. Brexit was not caused by the British Empire but the unresolved imperial past has worked to intensify and accelerate a constitutional crisis in which Brexit negotiations have been driven by a series of delusions about the national past instead of present political realities.

Liam Liburd is in his 3rd year PhD studies with the University of Sheffield. His thesis is titled “Radical Right, Imperial, White: Imperialism, Race and Gender on the British Radical Right, 1918 to 1968”. His research focuses on the relationship between the British Radical Right and the British Empire. An article of his, on ideas of imperial masculinity in the British Union of Fascists, was recently published in Fascism: Journal of Comparative Fascist Studies. He has broader interests in gender and cultural historical approaches to British and imperial history in the twentieth century.

Related Stories

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

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

 

[1] Gary Younge, ‘Britain’s imperial fantasies have given us Brexit’, The Guardian, 3 February,

2018; Fintan O’Toole, ‘The paranoid fantasy behind Brexit’, The Guardian, 16  November, 2018.

[2] Paul Gilroy, After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? (Abingdon: Routledge, 2004), p. 117.

[3] Ibid., p. 97.

[4] Gordon Rayner, ‘Jeremy Hunt warns EU a bad Brexit deal will stir Britain’s “Dunkirk spirit”’, The Daily Telegraph, 30 September, 2018.

[5] James Rothwell, ‘“We will channel Churchill” – Brexiteers to warn Michel Barnier of “iron will” to walk away from bad deal’, The Daily Telegraph, 6 January, 2018.

[6] Kieran Andrews, ‘MSP defends claim Churchill was racist’, The Times, 29 January, 2019.

[7] Felix Klos, ‘Boris Johnson’s Abuse of Churchill’, History Today, 1 June 2016; Harry Yorke, ‘Boris Johnson likens Brexit dilemma to Churchill’s defiance of Hitler’, The Daily Telegraph, 6 December, 2018.

[8] Robert Booth, ‘Boris Johnson caught on camera reciting Kipling in Myanmar temple’, The Guardian, 30 September, 2017.

[9] Gilroy, After Empire, pp. 102, 110-111.

[10] Ibid., p. 100.

[11] ‘Boris Johnson says Brexit deal will make Britain an EU colony’, Reuters, 3 October, 2018.

[12] Heather Stewart & Rowena Mason, ‘Nigel Farage’s anti-migrant poster reported to police’, Guardian, 16 July, 2016.

[13] Bill Schwarz, Memories of Empire, Volume 1 – The White Man’s World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 347, 398-399.

[14] Powell was an outspoken Eurosceptic and while the Monday Club was divided over the issue of European Economic Community, the organisation contained a stridently anti-Europe wing, see Schwarz, White Man’s World, pp. 432-433.

[15] Schwarz, White Man’s World, p. 398.

[16] ‘PM Statement on Brexit: 20 March 2019’.

[17] Claire Phipps, ‘British newspapers react to judges’ Brexit ruling: ‘Enemies of the people’, 4 November, 2016.

[18] Younge, ‘Britain’s imperial fantasies have given us Brexit’.

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Party Politics, Realignment and Brexit: Can the American Civil War Teach us Anything?

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A recurring historical analogy in discussions of Brexit over the past few months has been the Conservative Prime Minister Robert Peel’s decision to back repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. In lowering the price of grain, he split his party: an eventuality that Jacob Rees Mogg, among others, has warned Theresa May to avoid. At the very same moment Peel was driving a wedge through the Tories, though, another telling comparison to our present condition was taking shape across the Atlantic, where the future of U.S. land annexed from Mexico brought the question of slavery to the fore of electoral politics, and eventually led to the Civil War of 1861-65.

Like Europe, the ‘slavery question’ in the United States provides a case in point as to how the most divisive of issues can be shielded from party politics, yet how, with remarkable suddenness, they can come to occupy the centre of political debate.

To see battles over slavery and Europe as historical equivalents, of course, would be deeply problematic. Whatever the stakes in the current crisis the human toll pales into insignificance when set against the fate of the four million black southerners forcibly held as property across the US South. But the political dynamics, at least, bear some striking similarities.

Prior to 1846, slavery, much like the Europe question before the referendum, stood on the margins of American party politics. Despite the herculean efforts of black and white abolitionists to make it the great issue of the day, neither of the major political parties had any interest in challenging the status quo. Both the Whigs and the Democrats, after all, had been vying for votes from nearly all-white electorates in the North and South ever since the heyday of so-called ‘Jacksonian Democracy’ in the 1830s. To mobilise around either the expansion or extirpation of slavery would have alienated citizens in one section or the other.

Politicians for sure often had strong feelings about the enslavement of black southerners, and would say as much in their own states, but when it came to fighting national elections the parties were non-committal at best. It was a stance that all but guaranteed slavery’s perpetuation. No wonder many abolitionists saw party politics as a dead end.

Slavery, like Europe in British politics then, divided the parties internally prior to the 1850s, but did not automatically produce what political scientists refer to as a ‘realignment’. Attempts to turn American politics into a battle between anti-slavery and pro-slavery forces initially failed as the third parties of abolitionists and their southern critics flickered into life before quickly burning out… In a distorted way, such endeavours resemble the efforts of organizations like UKIP, insofar as they placed pressure on the major parties without forcing a redrawing of party lines. The survival of the Second Party System, as it was known, depended on silencing slavery as a subject of debate. When, from roughly the mid-1850s onwards, that no longer proved possible, the political landscape quickly changed beyond recognition. Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency in 1860 as the figurehead of a new, antislavery Republican Party underscored the transformation. Within a few months southern whites formed their breakaway slaveholding republic.

To understand the roots of the American Civil War we, therefore, need to explain that party realignment. How did slavery move from the margins of American party politics to become its central divide? In the simplest terms, historians have tended to fall into one of two camps to answer that question: ‘fundamentalists’, who see slavery slowly but surely undermining the foundations of the Second Party System, and the ‘revisionists,’ who blame either blundering politicians or political dynamics for the collapse.

The latter often hone in on the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854: legislation that opened new territory to slaveholders and prompted the formation of the Republican Party. At first glance, a brazen attempt to extend slavery, the measure, on closer scrutiny, can be seen as a ploy on the part of the northern Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas to resolve a political impasse in his party.[1]

Eager to secure southern Democrats’ support for a transcontinental railroad from his home state of Illinois, he offered slaveholders the sop of new territory, while reasoning that soil and climate would prevent them from migrating in sufficient numbers to seize it. By making slavery extension a question for white voters in territories to determine themselves, Douglas believed the divisive issue could be depoliticized at the national level. The result was precisely the opposite: guerrilla warfare soon broke out in ‘Bleeding Kansas’ and within a few years electoral politics was pitting North v. South.

When it comes to the Civil War, I lean more towards the fundamentalist line. But if such categories were transposed to Brexit I’d be more inclined to revisionism. The Europe question has simmered in British politics since the 1970s, and has divided both major parties, but it required miscalculations on part of clever politicians to bring it to a raging boil. For Stephen Douglas and the Kansas Nebraska Act in 2016 read David Cameron and the referendum of 2016. Both were seemingly clever manoeuvres to resolve internal party conflict that had unforeseen consequences. The political fallout of Brexit, though, is harder to discern.

Even amid the current chaos, the national parties most united on Europe – UKIP, the Greens, and the Liberal Democrats – languish in the polls. No realignment has remade British politics into a struggle between pro- and anti-European parties, and for now at least, the old party lines just about hold. But will that be the case over the next few months? Once slavery did become the major issue in American politics between 1846 and 1854, it quickly tore apart the established parties. Nothing short of a revolutionary war could resolve it. That eventuality may be improbable here, but the party system we have grown up with may not long endure.

Andrew Heath is a lecturer in American History at the University of Sheffield, where he teaches a third-year special subject on the origins of the American Civil War. His book, In Union There Is Strength: Philadelphia in the Age of Urban Consolidation, will be published by University of Pennsylvania Press in February.

[1] Though ‘fundamentalists’ would quite rightly point out that Douglass was responding to pressure from his southern slaveholding colleagues in the Democratic Party.

 

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

IWM NCL – COs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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

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On 18 December 1917, the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was put forward in the United States Senate, stipulating a federal ban on the production, distribution, and sale of alcoholic beverages. Upon its enforcement in January 1920, the Prohibition era, lasting to its eventual repeal in 1933, saw the culmination of the century-long battle against liquor by the temperance movement.

Alongside America, Canada, Norway, and Finland already moved to implement a similar nationwide ban on alcohol. Britain, on the other hand, was one of the few exceptions, being among the nations where alcohol was historically politicised for not undergoing total prohibition. Comparing British and American experiences reveals that approaches to alcohol regulation have been shaped by assumed ideals about how one should, or shouldn’t, drink. The alcohol debate in the early 20th century was defined by the question on whether the promotion of abstinence was truly preferable over moderation, a disagreement that has recently experienced a noticeable comeback in Britain.

The significance of the circumstances surrounding the First World War cannot be understated when looking at the Prohibition as a global trend. Reflecting on the disruptive effects that drunkenness had had on mobilisation during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5, the Russian Empire ceased all production and sale of vodka following the outbreak of war in July 1914. Before formally entering the war in April 1917, temperance groups like the Anti-Saloon League had already succeeded in banning the sale of alcohol in large sections of the United States. Eventually, wartime conditions led to the implementation of Prohibition at a federal level.

Britain also enacted its own set of countermeasures against the disruption caused by alcohol on the war effort. In the summer of 1915, Lloyd George established the Central Control Board (CCB) as a branch of the state intended to regulate the liquor trade. Aside from enforcing higher beverage duties and shorter opening hours for pubs, the CCB enacted a set of innovative policies to achieve its goals. These included a ban on ‘treating’ (buying drinks for anyone other than yourself), the installation of canteens in munitions factories to rival drinking establishments, and the nationalisation of pubs and off-licenses in regions pivotal to the war economy.

The Board’s perceived success in reducing consumption was among the primary reasons why prohibition was never implemented in Britain. The discovery that widespread drunkenness could be tamed by controlling the distribution of alcohol led many to dismiss a total ban as being unnecessarily disruptive. Medical expertise also played a key role in such debates. Evidence derived from wartime clinical and psychological research showed that, while excessive consumption was clearly detrimental to health, moderate drinking had negligible effects on the body. To many contemporaries, this indicated that legislation should promote moderation instead of total abstinence.

Hence, individual stances in the Prohibition debate were very much determined by whether one believed it was necessary to eliminate all consumption or to encourage moderate drinking. The support for a nationwide ban on the sale of alcohol in Britain and America alike was founded on the assumption that moderation was insufficient to solving the problems of drunkenness and alcoholism in society.

Indeed, recent discussions on alcohol policy in Britain have uncovered renewed tensions between these two assumptions. In 2016, in response to a new set of studies that tied moderate drinking to several cancers, the official UK guidelines on alcohol consumption were lowered to a meagre 14 units a week (equivalent to 7 pints of low-strength beer) for both men and women. In light of the new evidence, the Chief Medical Officer for England declared that ‘drinking any level of alcohol carries a health risk to anyone’.[i] Although moderation is still seen as an ideal, some observers have noted that the growing realisation that there is no actual safe level of drinking hint at the resurgence of total abstinence as a legitimate policy goal in the 21st century.

Ryosuke Yokoe is a historian of medicine at the University of Sheffield, studying the history of alcohol and disease in twentieth-century Britain. He is currently working as a research assistant under Professor Julie Gottlieb for the Wellcome Trust Seed Award project, Suicide, Society and Crisis. His twitter handle is @RyoYokoe1

[i] Quote from the Department of Health (2016), ‘New alcohol guidelines show increased risk of cancer’, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-alcohol-guidelines-show-increased-risk-of-cancer (last accessed 4 September 2016).

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Nancy Astor: feminist by default rather than by design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you find most problematic about Astor?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What you are trying to achieve with Astor100?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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