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Fascism Fictionalised: Inter-war British Fascism in Popular Culture, 1932 to Present

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Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF)[1] never won an election or parliamentary seat and, from its foundation in 1932 to its proscription in 1940, struggled to break into the political mainstream. Though in the mid-1930s it had around 50,000 members and enjoyed the support of Daily Mail proprietor Lord Rothermere, it remained a vocal but politically isolated organisation. And yet, over the last few years, the stage and the small screen have played host to a series of new depictions of interwar British fascism. What lies behind the renewed interest in this abhorrent political failure? And, moreover, what does the return to British fascism’s past say about the present?

In answering these questions, it’s necessary to first look back over the history of depictions of British fascism on the page, stage and screen. The earliest fictional depictions of British fascism occurred in interwar literature. In the work of a number of liberal and left-leaning novelists, characters based on Mosley and his followers appeared as figures of fun or dire warnings of the shape of things to come. Classic comic depictions include Nancy Mitford’s Wigs on the Green (1935) and P.G. Wodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters (1938). Alongside these, Naomi Mitchison’s We Have Been Warned (1935), Margaret Storm Jameson’s In the Second Year (1936), and H. G. Wells’ The Holy Terror (1939) took the threat of fascism more seriously. However, these authors were less concerned with Mosleyite fascism as an immediate threat and more concerned with visions of a British fascist dystopia or Wellsian utopia situated in the near future.

The war changed the way fascism was depicted. It was reimagined solely as an exterior threat, perhaps aided domestically by traitorous collaborators, as in the 1942 Ealing Studios’ film Went the Day Well? This depiction of fascism as an invading foreign force continued in post-war alternate history films and novels such as It Happened Here (1964), Guy Walters’ The Leader (2003), and C. J. Sansom’s Dominion (2012). Works in this genre are conservative in their anti-fascism. They dismissed fascism on the basis of its un-Britishness, characterising it largely as a German import (or, rather, imposition).

The more recent depictions of Mosleyite fascism differ from earlier examples in the sense that they regard fascism as an urgent and indigenous threat rather than a foreign import or a subject for dystopian or utopian speculation. In BBC’s 2018 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders and the most recent series of Peaky Blinders (now available via Netflix), fascism appears as a danger on Britain’s streets.

The recent adaptation of The ABC Murders diverges from Christie’s 1936 novel. In this version, we find an older Hercule Poirot, a faded relic of murder mystery parties, haunted by memories of his experiences as a Belgian refugee during the First World War. As he investigates a series of grisly murders, Poirot wanders through a rain-swept and racist Britain, increasingly becoming a hostile environment for foreigners. As if to underline this point, on almost every street corner, Poirot passes posters bearing the BUF’s flash-and-circle insignia.

While actual BUF members never make an appearance in The ABC Murders, Peaky Blinders depicts an alternate history of the movement’s formation. The fifth series begins with the protagonist, Thomas Shelby, newly installed as the Labour MP for Birmingham South – the constituency neighbouring Mosley’s. In an attempt to undermine Mosley (played brilliantly by Sam Claflin), Shelby becomes his right-hand man.

The series’ creators have moved events around a little. They erase Mosley’s pre-fascist New Party entirely, depicting his jump straight from Labour minister to British fascist three years early in late 1929 immediately after the Wall Street Crash. These liberties are easy to forgive as Claflin and the series’ writers capture Mosley’s personality and ideas with chilling accuracy. The series takes place in a turbulent Britain, wracked by gang warfare and economic unrest. Mosley appears here as a populist, complaining about ‘false news’ and promising to put ‘Britain first’. In the series’ finale, with the backing of Winston Churchill and in cooperation with a gang of Jewish bakers, Shelby mounts an assassination attempt on Mosley.[2]

In addition to these, Brigid Larmour’s recently announced touring production of The Merchant of Venice plans to shift the setting of Shakespeare’s most problematic play from Renaissance Venice to the inter-war East End of London. Due to begin touring in September 2020, this version is set to sympathetically reimagine Shylock – long considered an antisemitic stereotype – as a Jewish shopkeeper and war widow. Set in the weeks leading up to the 1936 Battle of Cable Street, the play’s original protagonists are to be recast as wealthy Mosleyites.

These modern depictions are darkly introspective. Their creators manipulate the historical record and over-inflate the popularity of the BUF. But in doing so, they are really inviting audiences to ruminate on the state of present-day, post-Brexit Britain. In looking to examples of political authoritarianism, anti-immigrant xenophobia and racism (especially in the contemporary context of rising antisemitism) from Britain’s past, they are attempting to think through the present.

However, in an eagerness to make historical analogies, we might miss the specifics of the present. In Britain and throughout the world, the radical right in 2020 does not resemble the radical right of the mid-1930s. Fascists were not, as the creators of The ABC Murders imagined, present on every street corner in inter-war Britain. While this is still not the case in terms of their physical presence, radical right ideas and rhetoric are being mainstreamed now as never before. Through their journalistic fellow travellers and social media, the modern radical right have achieved a reach that far surpasses Lord Rothermere’s brief endorsement of Oswald Mosely in the mid-1930s. Recent fictional depictions of British fascism suggest we are reliving the 1930s; in fact, we are living through something altogether different and potentially worse.

Liam Liburd currently works as a Teaching Associate in Modern International History at the University of Sheffield. He completed his PhD entitled “The Eternal Imperialists: Empire, Race and Gender on the British Radical Right, 1918-1968” in February 2020. His broader research interests are in British political and cultural history, and the history and afterlives of the British Empire. You can find him on Twitter @DocLiburd

Cover image: Oswald Mosley and Diana Mitford, 1936. https://www.flickr.com/photos/150300783@N07/35638188926 [accessed 4 May 2020].

[1] The BUF was renamed the British Union of Fascists and National Socialists or just ‘British Union’/BU in 1936.

[2] Churchill’s appearance in the fifth series of Peaky Blinders as some kind of parliamentary anti-fascist waging a secret war against Mosley is perhaps the show’s most disappointing misstep. Before his time as the grand anti-appeaser, the real-life Churchill was an aristocratic apologist for Mussolini.   

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Dawson’s ‘Big Idea’: The Enduring Appeal of the Primary Healthcare Centre in Britain

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May 2020 marks the centenary of the publication of the Interim Report of the Consultative Council on the Future of Medical and Allied Services, popularly known as the Dawson report after its principal author, Lord Dawson of Penn.[i] The report, commissioned in 1919 by the newly established Ministry of Health, outlined a plan to bring together existing services funded by national health insurance, local authorities, and voluntary bodies in a coherent and comprehensive healthcare system. The final report was never published, being consigned to oblivion by a worsening economy and changed political climate. Though cautiously welcomed by professional leaders, Dawson’s plan was condemned by a hostile press as grandiose and unaffordable.[ii] However, recent NHS policy directives regarding Integrated Care Systems show that the principal task which Dawson’s group had set itself, that of successfully integrating primary, secondary and ‘allied’ health services, is one with which NHS leaders are still grappling today.[iii]

Lord Dawson of Penn, courtesy of the British Medical Association archive

Central to Dawson’s plan, and its most revolutionary idea, was the creation of a network of ‘primary health centres’ (PHCs) in each district in which general practitioners (GPs) could access diagnostic, surgical, and laboratory facilities for their patients and which would also house infant welfare and maternity services, facilities to promote physical health, and space for administration, records, and postgraduate education. GPs and other professionals would see and treat patients at PHCs, referring only complex cases to specialists at secondary care centres (essentially district hospitals) located in large towns, while patients needing the most specialized treatment would be referred to regional teaching hospitals with attached medical schools. This ‘hub and spoke’ model is one to which recent generations of NHS health planners have returned time and again, seemingly unaware of its antecedents.

A firm believer in teamwork, Dawson hoped that collaborative use of PHCs by GPs would encourage group practice and multi-disciplinary working. But the individualistic nature of general practice at that time meant GPs remained wary of his ideas, despite the fact that examples of PHCs already existed in Gloucestershire and in Scotland and many of the facilities they were meant to comprise could be found in GP-run cottage hospitals and Poor Law infirmaries.[iv] Experiments with architect-designed health centres in the 1920s and 1930s failed to elicit a major change in professional or governmental attitudes.[v] In 1948 the NHS brought public, voluntary and local authority hospitals under state control but in its early years the promise of new PHCs remained largely unrealised.[vi] Proprietorial traditions and fear of local government control led to a mushrooming of purpose- built, GP-owned practice premises between the late 1960s and 1990s independently of local authority-owned health centres, for which there was a major building programme in the 1970s.[vii]

Illustration of a Primary Health Centre, from the Dawson Report, courtesy of the BMA archive

Although by the late twentieth century the Dawson report had largely been forgotten, interest in PHCs resurfaced in the early 2000s with a major investment in primary healthcare facilities through the establishment of Local Improvement Finance Trusts (LIFT). These were a form of private finance initiative designed to provide state of the art community health and social care hubs housing GP practices and other services. Unfortunately, LIFT buildings proved more expensive than anticipated and their facilities, intended to promote the transfer of work from secondary to primary care, were often underutilised.[viii] While these were being constructed, the Labour health minister, Lord Ara Darzi, announced the establishment of a number of ‘polyclinics’, bearing a close resemblance to Dawson’s PHC idea. However, the Darzi Centres that were established were either mothballed or repurposed, being condemned as an expensive ‘white elephant’ by professional leaders.[ix]

In the last few years a ‘quiet revolution’ has been taking place in the NHS in England involving attempts to dismantle the financial and institutional barriers between primary, secondary and community care created by the internal market. Its byword, ‘Integration’, echoes Dawson’s overriding goal and the ‘hub and spoke model’ he advocated is now well established. Meanwhile, the pressures of unending demand have forced GPs to collaborate as healthcare providers in locality groups called Primary Care Networks (PCNs). Though guidance on these is not prescriptive, some PCNs have adopted the idea of a community ‘hub’ housing shared diagnostic and treatment facilities much as Dawson had envisaged.[x]

While the full impact of COVID-19 on our struggling health services is still unknown, the abiding necessity for all parts of the NHS to collaborate, communicate and mutually support each other during this crisis underlines the value and relevance of Dawson’s vision of integrated services. It remains to be seen if, in its aftermath, his ‘big idea’ of ubiquitous multi-purpose PHCs will come any closer to being realised.

Chris Locke is a fourth year PhD student in the History Department at the University of Sheffield. His research is focused on the political consciousness of British GPs and their struggle for professional self-determination in the early Twentieth Century.

Cover image: LIFT -built Primary Care Centre, Retford, Nottinghamshire, photographed by the author.

[i] Interim Report of the Consultative Council on the Future of Medical and Allied Services, Cmd 693 HMSO  1920. For an account of the origins and significance of the report see Frank Honigsbaum, The Division in British Medicine (London, 1979) chapters 6-12.

[ii] The British Medical Association’s blueprint for health services reform, A General Medical Service for the Nation (1930) and the report by Political and Economic Planning, The British Health Services (1937) both referenced the Dawson report, and it clearly influenced the Beveridge report, Social Insurance and Allied Services (1942).

[iii] https://www.kingsfund.org.uk/publications/making-sense-integrated-care-systems (last accessed 3 April 2020)

[iv] The report referenced the hub and spoke model of healthcare facilities overseen by Gloucestershire County Council’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr J Middleton Martin. Commentators also noted similarities with Sir James McKenzie’s Primary Care Clinic in St Andrews and Trade Union-run Medical Aid Institutes in South Wales.

[v] Jane Lewis and Barbara Brookes, ‘A Reassessment of the Work of the Peckham Health Centre 1926-1951’, Health and Society vol 61, 2, 1983 pp.307-350; For Finsbury Health Centre see A B Stewart, ‘Health Centres of Today’, The Lancet, 16 March 1946 pp. 392-393.

[vi] For one exception see R H Parry et al, ‘The William Budd Health Centre: the First Year’, British Medical Journal, 15 March 1954 pp.388-392.

[vii] BMA General Practitioners Committee guidance: The Future of GP Practice Premises (Revised 2010)

[viii] Nottinghamshire Local Medical Committee, NHS LIFT in Nottinghamshire (Nottingham,1997)

[ix] Peter Davies, ‘Darzi Centres: an expensive luxury the UK can no longer afford?’, British Medical Journal, 13 November 2010, 341; c6237.

[x] https://www.england.nhs.uk/primary-care/primary-care-networks/ (last accessed 3 April 2020)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Cato Street Conspiracy, 1820

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In the early evening of 23 February 1820, some twenty men assembled in a small hayloft above a stable in Cato Street, off the Edgware Road in London. They were led by Arthur Thistlewood, a well-known militant follower of the radical doctrines of Thomas Spence; the majority of the other men were destitute tradesmen from England, Scotland and Ireland. Joining their ranks was the Jamaican-born William Davidson. The hayloft had been converted into the ramshackle headquarters of a revolutionary conspiracy to assassinate the British Cabinet, who were believed to be dining in nearby Grosvenor Square.

The conspirators were driven by a thirst for vengeance for the ‘Peterloo massacre’ the previous summer, when a peaceful political rally calling for parliamentary reform was charged by the Manchester Yeomanry, killing eighteen and injuring over 700 people. Thistlewood was also enthused by the brutal assassination of Charles Ferdinard, the heir to the French throne, in Paris, ten days before the fated gathering in Cato Street. Ferdinard was stabbed on leaving an opera house in Paris by Louis Pierre Louvel, a fanatical Bonapartist who craved nothing less than the eradication of the Bourbon monarchy. Thistlewood was newly invigorated on hearing of Louvel’s deed, believing that the time had come to strike against aristocratic and monarchical rule in Britain.

The Cato Street conspirators conceived an even more audacious action than the assassination of Ferdinard. After gathering at Cato Street to collect weapons (mostly pikes, swords and homemade guns), the revolutionary band intended to walk the short distance to the home of Lord Harrowby, the President of the Privy Council, the host for the Cabinet’s dinner. It was to be the ministers’ final meal: the conspirators planned to kill everyone in the dining room who held a position in government, with decapitation reserved for the two most loathed ministers, the Home Secretary, Viscount Sidmouth, and the Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh. Their heads were to be mounted on spikes and paraded ghoulishly in public as befitted traitors to the ‘People’.

Following the tyrannicide, the revolutionaries planned to seize symbolic buildings and establish a provisional government. On hearing the news of the death of the Cabinet and reading the declaration of the new government that promised a new dispensation based on the emancipation of the people, they believed that radicals in the capital would join the conspirators en masse, which in turn would trigger a national rising. Eighteen-twenty was to be the year of the British Republic.

The conspirators were, however, betrayed. There was no dinner for the Cabinet in Grosvenor Square that night; unbeknown to Thistlewood and his followers, they had been set up by an agent provocateur, George Edwards, who had infiltrated the conspiracy. The hated Lord Sidmouth authorised the publication of the false notice of the Cabinet dinner to lure out the conspiracy from the shadows.

As the conspirators prepared for their mission, the Bow Street Runners (an ancestor of the Metropolitan Police) charged into the stable on Cato Street. The scene was chaotic, as the Runners frantically climbed up a ladder to the hayloft. The candles were extinguished by the conspirators as they attempted to escape; as fighting broke out in the darkness, Thistlewood fatally stabbed an officer. With the assistance of army troops, the revolutionaries were eventually rounded up and arrested. The Cato Street conspiracy was over.

Justice was swiftly dealt out to the ring leaders. Eleven men were tried at the Old Bailey in April: five were exiled to Australia for life; one served a prison sentence; and five, including Thistlewood, were hanged on 1 May. The hangman held up their severed heads to the gathered crowd, denouncing the condemned men as traitors to the Crown.

The legacy of the Cato Street conspiracy is a mixed one. Most radicals denounced the conspiracy and its aims once the plot became public. With the passing of the generations, Thistlewood and his band of revolutionaries were not claimed by any radical tradition, in the same way that nineteenth- and twentieth-century Irish republicans venerated past figures associated with violent struggle, such as Theobald Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet. Given the absence of a coherent revolutionary tradition in modern Britain (as opposed to Ireland), the Cato Street conspiracy does not quite ‘fit’ into a neatly defined historical narrative that emphasises peaceful and constitutional radical political reform.

It is, perhaps, for this reason that the significance of the plot is overlooked in (or even entirely missing from) many accounts of the early decades of nineteenth-century Britain. While the plot can be (and often is) dismissed as an act of lunacy, such a perspective overlooks the depth of hostility among radicals towards the government in the years immediately following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, especially in the aftermath of Peterloo. The refusal to treat the conspiracy seriously also means that historians can easily miss the international revolutionary networks that surrounded the ringleaders. The men who gathered in the hayloft on Cato Street in February 1820 did not trigger an insurrection against Britain’s aristocratic masters, but this was not necessarily a certainty, especially in the context of spiralling revolutionary fervour in Europe.

Making sense of the Cato Street conspiracy is a difficult but rewarding challenge. This is why the recent publication of an edited volume of essays that emerged from a conference on the conspiracy held at the University of Sheffield in 2017 is so welcome: as the book reveals, there is much to be said about this almost forgotten plot, from the conspirators’ Caribbean connections to lives of the exiled rebels in Australia. The Cato Street Conspiracy: Plotting, Counter-Intelligence and the Revolutionary Tradition in Britain and Ireland, edited by Jason McElligott and Martin Conboy, illuminates many aspects of the foiled plan and its wider significance.

With the bicentenary of the conspiracy, it is perhaps time to reconsider Britain’s complicated radical past, warts and all. The transition to democracy was not as linear and peaceful as it retrospectively appeared.

Colin Reid is a Lecturer in Modern British and Irish History at the University of Sheffield. His research interests lie in exploring the political, cultural and intellectual mentalities at the heart of the British-Irish dilemma from the French Revolution to the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’.

Cover image: The arrest of the Cato Street Conspirators, 1820.

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Churchill and the Prof: Putting ‘declinism’ at the heart of the system

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In October 1951, after a six-year absence, Winston Churchill was returned to office as British Prime Minister at the head of a Conservative government. His previous stint for which he is most famous was as head of a wartime coalition, appointed rather than elected. His 1951-1955 term – which Anthony Seldon once described as his ‘Indian Summer’ – is less familiar to a contemporary audience.

Yet Churchill’s second term has still played a key role in shaping the contemporary political landscape, not least in terms of the politics of ‘declinism’ – the school of commentary and historical writing that constructs Britain’s story in terms of its ‘decline’ as a world power, often for highly-politicised reasons. It is almost a banality to note that Britain’s status in international affairs was a preeminent concern for Churchill; in the course of 1951-1955 – four years otherwise seen by many historians as unremarkable in political terms – the question of global power and science and technology policy would, for Churchill, become inextricably linked.

On his return to office, Churchill invited his old friend and ally Frederick Lindemann – by now Lord Cherwell – to assume his old ministerial office of Paymaster-General which he had held during the Second World War. Cherwell, as much as Churchill, is a controversial figure; acting as Churchill’s scientific adviser during the Second World War, it was Cherwell’s calculations, as Madhusree Mukerjee has shown, which played a key role in the Bengal Famine of 1943.

In the 1950s, Cherwell – an eminent physicist and Oxford professor – used his government and academic roles to lobby strongly for a British equivalent to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). This was anchored in his conviction that Britain’s great power status was contingent on the radical reshaping of science and technology policy – and its education system. Himself a graduate of the Berlin Technical University where he had studied until Walther Nernst, he was dismissive of much of British scientific and technological education.

He consistently used his relationship with Churchill to push for reform – often against the tide of broader intellectual opinion. Whilst academic thinking on curricula in Britain was increasingly focusing on interdisciplinarity in the post-war period, partly in reaction to what was seen as ‘excessive specialisation’ (and thus, so the argument ran, moral bankruptcy) in the German institutions to which Britain’s civic universities in particular were indebted, Cherwell was unrepentant in his defence of such institutions. In a 1952 memorandum to the Prime Minister, Cherwell argued that it was ‘essential to train a new race of technologists to effect a [‘minor’ penciled out] revolution in our industrial outlook, because it is vital for our survival that productivity should rapidly increase’. To this end, Cherwell wanted three new technological universities.

He was an advocate of what C. P. Snow would come to call the ‘two cultures’ thesis of a rift between the Arts and the Sciences. In a debate in the House of Lords in 1957, shortly before he died and some years out of office, Cherwell decried the lack of basic scientific knowledge he found amongst ‘Arts men’, and argued pointedly that a lack of ‘technologists’ placed Britain at a disadvantage to Russia.

Cherwell had made the same arguments for years; in a typescript of his notes for a speech at a conference in 1950, the same themes can be found. In 1954, after he had left office but whilst Churchill was still Prime Minister, he had – in Churchill’s words – ‘warned that…the Russians were getting ahead not only of us, but of the Americans’. Churchill recounted this in a letter to Harold Macmillan during the latter’s tenure as Prime Minister, pleading for more spending on technological education.

This warnings had an impact on Churchill, both in office and out of it. In 1954, Churchill appointed Sir David Eccles as Minister of Education, the first minister ‘to assume educational expenditure was economic investment’, in the words of former civil servant Maurice Kogan. In his first meeting with his Parliamentary Education Committee, Eccles argued that ‘education was the basis of the defence of freedom.’

For Eccles, taking office towards the end of Churchill’s term, the link between education and economic growth was axiomatic, and thus in turn global power. Under Churchill’s successor, Sir Anthony Eden, Eccles would promote a ‘public sector’ of higher education – the Colleges of Advanced Technology – which would be advertised in emphatically geopolitical terms.

Churchill, in his retirement, would spend time lobbying for the Churchill Technological Trust, who sought to build a College at Cambridge in his name, supposedly focusing on scientific and technological education. Cherwell’s influence on him – the duo had been dubbed ‘Churchill and the Prof’ – had been profound. But their partnership in the 1950s, building on their tenure during the Second World War, helped construct educational expansion in Britain in ‘techno-nationalist’ terms, to borrow David Edgerton’s phrase. They were not alone in this, but the peculiar emphases in STEM discourses in contemporary British politics owe at least a little to the crystallisation of declinist ideas about scientific and technological education which took place during, and after, Churchill’s peacetime government.

These ideas – equating science and technology with British power and the possibilities of influence – live on, and offer a distinctively British framing to broader debates over higher education policy, marketisation, neoliberalism and techno-nationalism which span party lines and, as Edgerton has shown, illuminate broader questions as to the nature of the British ‘nation’ in the post-war era.

Dr Mike Finn is Senior Lecturer in History and Director of Liberal Arts at the University of Exeter. A historian of modern and contemporary British history, his doctoral research focused on the political economy of higher education in post-war England. His most recent book is British Universities in the Brexit Moment: Political, economic and cultural implications (2018).

 

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Jonas Salk turns 105: Some thoughts on lessons from history

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Jonas Salk would have been 105 today, 28 October. He is remembered as the inventor of the polio vaccine who, when asked how much money he stood to make, declared: ‘There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?’

Of course, “it’s more complicated than that”. Salk was part of a multi-national, multi-agency project to develop prophylactics. Without the use of “his” injectable vaccine and the oral vaccine developed by rivals on the other side of the iron curtain, humanity would not be on the verge of eliminating polio. (For more on that story, see the excellent book by Dora Vargha.)[1] And one of the reasons Salk didn’t patent the vaccine was that it was unpatentable.

But let’s not be uncharitably pedantic. It is, after all, his birthday.

In the wake of recent reports of resurgent infectious diseasesincluding polio – vaccination is back in the news. (If, indeed, it ever went away). Matt Hancock, the UK’s Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, has suggested the government might consider mandatory vaccination. Public health experts have cautioned against this, using (in part) historical evidence. In the nineteenth century, compulsory vaccination generated a well-organised, vocal and occasionally violent anti-vaccination movement,[2] the effects of which still haunt Britain’s public health authorities.

Public health has taken its lessons from high-profile examples of crisis – smallpox, pertussis or measles to name but three.[3] But not all problems come from rejection of vaccines. With polio in the 1950s, the problem was the government’s inability to meet demand.

Salk’s vaccine (yes, we’ll give him credit here – after all, contemporaries referred to the inactivated poliomyelitis vaccine simply as “Salk”) became commercially available in 1955. The British government announced with great fanfare that it would provide the vaccine for free to all children and young adults. There was clear demand for it. This invention – in the same vein as space exploration and penicillin – was a marker of modernity, the power of science to solve once-intractable problems.

Unfortunately, there was not enough to go around. In 1955, a manufacturing defect by Cutter Pharmaceuticals resulted in the accidental infection of hundreds of American children. As a result, the British banned American imports and chose to use domestic factories to produce a “safer” form of the vaccine.[4] But Britain didn’t have the capacity to produce enough doses in time. Shortages created complaints from the British press and parents, and – despite the demand – few registered for the vaccine because of the long waiting lists and inconvenience.

As proof of the demand for the vaccine – despite the Cutter incident – local authorities were swamped with requests when high-profile cases made the news. The death of professional footballer Jeff Hall showed even fit, young people could be affected and created a surge in numbers of younger adults presenting themselves and their children for the jab. In the ensuing shortages, the health minister blamed people for their apathy – if they’d just done as they were told when they were told, the government could have better distributed the vaccine over the course of the year. This did not go down well as a public relations exercise.

This crisis was eventually overcome through the introduction of the oral polio vaccine in the early 1960s. Taken on a sugar cube, parents were much more willing to present their children. It was a quick process that could be done anywhere; it didn’t hurt (though its taste was somewhat to be desired); and it could be manufactured so easily, and in such volume, that there was no need to wait around for months for the next batch to become available.

Of course, all historical circumstances are different. Anti-vaccination literature is certainly more visible than it was in the 1950s. Populations are more mobile. The immediate memory – even fear – of certain infectious diseases has faded.

At the same time, the intriguing part of this history – at least to this historian – is not why people don’t vaccinate their kids. It’s why so many do.[5] The vast majority of children receive some form of vaccination – upwards of 95 per cent – even if they do not always complete every course in the recommended time frame.

The great improvements in vaccination rates over the past 70 years have come from better administration. Easier-to-administer vaccines. More-robust procedures for following up on missed appointments. Advertising. Having local health professionals answer the specific questions and concerns individual parents might have. Following up with patients who might otherwise slip through the surveillance of public health authorities (such as those who do not speak English, regularly change addresses, have other acute social care needs). All these things required resources which have been squeezed significantly since public health was reintegrated into already-struggling local authorities.

It would be unwise for a historian to say that this is the cause of the problems, or that extra funding will provide a magic-bullet solution.

It is, however, worth reminding ourselves that crises in vaccination policy are not new. We have experienced them before. And not all of them have been due to a lack of demand or fear of a particular vaccine. The 1950s polio example shows us that more practical issues can be at play, and that the public and its collective behaviour are not necessarily at the root of them.

Gareth Millward is a Wellcome Research Fellow at the Centre for the History of Medicine at the University of Warwick. He has worked on the history of disability, public health, vaccination and most recently sick notes. His book Vaccinating Britain was published in January 2019 by Manchester University Press.

[1] Dora Vargha, Polio across the Iron Curtain: Hungary’s Cold War with an Epidemic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

[2] Nadja Durbach, Bodily Matters: The Anti-Vaccination Movement in England, 1853–1907 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005).

[3] Stuart Blume, Immunization: How Vaccines Became Controversial (London: Reaktion, 2017).

[4] Hannah Elizabeth, Gareth Millward and Alex Mold, ‘’Injections-While-You-Dance’: Press advertisements and poster promotion of the polio vaccine to British publics, 1956-1962’, Cultural and Social History 16:3 (2019): 315-36.

[5] Gareth Millward, Vaccinating Britain: Mass Vaccination and the Public Since the Second World War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019), p. 1.

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