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Modern British History

The Long Fall of King Coal

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When did Britain’s age of coal come to an end? A commonsensical answer to this question is likely to appeal to the decisive defeat the miners suffered during the great strike of 1984-5 and the swift closure of collieries that followed in the decade after.

Energy scholars such as Timothy Mitchell are more likely to point to the transition towards an oil economy in the immediate postwar period.[1] Long before the mid-1980s, Britain had become a car-driven society dependent on petrochemical manufacturing processes and oil had even begun to play a significant role in Britain’s electricity generation by the early 1970s.[2]

King coal’s fall was certainly longer than a story of rapid contraction allows for, but rather than being squarely located in an earlier time-period, it is a story that stretches into the present. British coal production and employment peaked at almost 300 million tons and over a million miners during the second decade of the twentieth century and has been in more or less sustained contraction since the early 1920s. It was only in 2020, during the midst of lockdown, that Britain went without coal-fired electricity for two months for the first time in over 130 years.

These developments are a sign of things to come. Britain is on track to end coal-fired electricity by the mid-2020s. Scotland’s last coal power station, Longannet, closed in 2016. Fourteen years earlier, in 2002, the curtain was brought down on a centuries-long historical saga when miners rose from the last of the drift mines dug to supply Longannet for the final time. This brought Scottish deep coal mining to an end.

I was finalising my PhD thesis on deindustrialization in Scotland’s coalfields when Longannet power station closed. My research included several interviews with men who had worked at the complex and were among the nation’s last miners. My first monograph was published this year, Coal Country: The Meaning and Memory of Deindustrialization in Postwar Scotland.[3]

Coal Country approaches deindustrialization, the declining significance of industrial activities to employment and economic production, as a long-term historical economic process which had foundational cultural and political consequences. It understands the entire lifetime of Longannet power station, and the modernised mining complex which directly fuelled it with coal won beneath the Firth of Forth, as framed by deindustrialization.

Longannet was planned during the 1960s and contextualised by the numerical peak of coal mining job losses. Scottish coalfield employment stood at just over 30,000 in 1970 when the power station began producing electricity, less than half what it had been a decade before. These tens of thousands of job losses were negotiated through moral economy customs that evolved between the management of Britain’s nationalised coal industry and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

Closures were agreed in consultation with union representatives, transfers to suitable jobs were found for miners within travel distance of their homes and suitable accommodations were made for injured, disabled and elderly miners, including the option to retire early in some cases.

These practices evolved over time, originating in responses to sustained closured in the Shotts area of Lanarkshire after the Second World War when the workforce defied Coal Board expectations of mass emigration to collieries in eastern and central Scotland. Instead, a ‘take work to the workers’ policy was pursued by civil servants, including the direction of inward investment in engineering to stabilise the local labour market. This approach was subsequently followed across the Scottish coalfields during the 1950s and 1960s.[4]

Job losses and fears of economic insecurity nevertheless fuelled dissatisfaction. Longannet became a key site in the 1972 strike over miners’ wages when the NUM Scottish Area (NUMSA) mounted mass pickets who clashed with police.[5] A decade earlier, a ‘strong coal lobby’ connected to the Scottish Office had insisted on investment in additional electricity capacity due to concern about sector’s future and employment consequences.[6] Later in the 1960s, the NUMSA responded to mounting colliery closures by becoming a leading proponent of a devolved Scottish parliament within the labour movement.[7]

Longannet strengthened the articulation of a Scottish national coalfield community that overcame traditional parochial associations. Pat Egan relocated from Twechar in Lanarkshire to Glenrothes in Fife so he could take up work at the complex after Bedlay colliery shut in 1982. When I interviewed him in 2014, Pat explained that regional voting blocs in union elections dissipated over time and that trusting relationships were built between men who travelled to work at Longannet each day from Lanarkshire, Fife, Clackmannanshire and the Lothians.[8]

Coal Country confronts the need to understand deindustrialization as a formative structural process and an intensely personal experience whose intricacies determined life courses and remoulded community, class and nationhood. The contraction of Scotland’s coalfields unfolded across the second half of the twentieth century, but its pace was determined by the agency of workers, politicians, nationalised industry managers and civil servants.

Archival records from government, industry and unions provide a detailed vantage on the contingencies that shaped deindustrialization. Oral testimonies are insightful for understanding how workplace closures and job losses were experienced in the coalfields and what these changes came to mean in the twenty-first century.

Earlier this year, Longannet power station’s boiler house was subject to a controlled demolition and the large chimney is set to follow soon. Visible signs of the role coal played in transforming Scotland over the last two centuries are disappearing from the landscape, whilst the energy transition that led to Longannet’s closure continues apace. The Neart na Gaoithe windfarm is under construction in the North Sea near the Fife coast.

Moral economy sentiments and arguments over the responsibility of governments to use Scottish national resources in the interests of communities continue to animate workers’ perspectives. Unions have condemned of the ‘paltry return’ of local jobs and production provided by wind turbine multinational supply chains. The concerns and conflicts which animated deindustrialization in the Scottish coalfields will continue to reverberate in the context of debates over a ‘just transition’ to renewables.

Ewan Gibbs is a lecturer in Economic and Social History at the University of Glasgow. He published Coal Country: The Meaning and Memory of Deindustrialization in Postwar Scotland with the University of London Press and is beginning a BA-Wolfson Fellowship studying energy transitions. You can find Ewan on Twitter @ewangibbs


Cover image: Longannet Power Station 7 December 2011, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Longannet_Power_Station_7_December_2011.jpg [accessed 25 July 2021]

[1] Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (London: Verso, 2013).

[2] James Marriott and Terry Macalister, Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped a Nation Kindle Edition (London: Pluto, 2021).

[3] Ewan Gibbs, Coal Country: The Meaning and Memory of Deindustrialization in Postwar Scotland (London: University of London Press, 2021).

[4] The National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh, Scottish Economic Policy, 4/762, H. S. Phillips, Research studies: geographical movement of labour, 9 August 1948.

[5] Jim Phillips, The Industrial Politics of Devolution: Scotland in the 1960s and 1970s (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008) p.126.

[6] The National Archives, Kew, London, Ministry of Fuel and Power, 14/1495, Ministry of Power General Division, TUC and Fuel and Power policy brief for minister’s meeting on 12 February 1963.

[7] STUC, Annual Report 1967–1968, lxxi (1968), 191–2.

[8] Pat Egan, interview with author, Fife College, Glenrothes, 5 February 2014.

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50 Years of the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971)

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On 27 May, it is exactly fifty years since the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (MDA), the UK’s primary legislation for controlling drugs, received Royal Assent.

The Act arranged drugs into a three-tier classification system – A, B and C – with controls based on the perceived relative harm of different substances. Now the legislation is at the centre of a campaign by Transform Drug Policy who are calling for an overhaul of the law which the organisation considers having represented ‘50 years of failure’. 

One of the rationales behind the MDA was to consolidate the existing patchwork of legislation that had developed in the UK since the Pharmacy Act of 1868. This was the first time Parliament recognised a risk to the public from ‘poisoning’ and the 1868 Act distinguished between substances that were ‘toxic’ (poisons) and substances that were both ‘toxic’ and ‘addictive’ (‘dangerous drugs’). 

Some of these so-called ‘drugs of addiction’ were later subject to further controls under the Dangerous Drugs Act 1920 (DDA) which introduced prescriptions and criminalised unauthorised possession of opium, morphine, heroin and cocaine. 

Whilst this did represent a continuation of wartime drug control efforts it was also the result of a racist media-led panic around Chinese opium dens, as well as being a response to international moves toward uniformity on drug regulation. 

The DDA was later clarified by the Departmental Committee on Morphine and Heroin Addiction in their 1926 ‘Rolleston Report’. This formed an interpretation of the Act that became known as the ‘British System’, framing ‘drug addiction’ as a medical issue rather than a moral failing. 

By the 1950s, drugs were becoming increasingly connected in public consciousness with youth subculture and – especially in the tabloid press – black communities and the London jazz scene, stoking further moral panic. 

By 1958, the British Medical Journal observed that the regulations around drugs and poisons were already ‘rather complicated’.[1] This picture was complicated yet further by the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs which laid out an international regime of drug control, ratified in the UK in 1964 by another Dangerous Drugs Act

Another committee was also formed under the Chairmanship of Lord Brain, ultimately leading to (yet another) Dangerous Drugs Act in 1967 which held onto the principles of the ‘British System’ but introduced new stipulations, such as requiring doctors to apply for a licence from the Home Office for certain prescriptions. 

During the 1960s, drugs continued to be associated in popular imagination with youth, with most attention by 1967 on the ‘Counterculture’ and ‘the hippies’, and in particular their use of cannabis and LSD. That same year, Mick Jagger’s country retreat in Redlands was raided by the drugs squad in a bust that was symbolic of a broader clash of ideologies.

The arrest and harsh sentencing of Jagger, Keith Richards and their friend Robert Fraser prompted William Rees-Mogg’s famous Times editorial ‘Who Breaks a Butterfly on a Wheel?’ on 1 July 1967. This became part of a wider public debate on drug use and on 16 July a ‘Legalise Pot’ rally took place in Hyde park, followed on 24 July by a full-page advert (paid for by Paul McCartney) in the Times calling for cannabis law reform.  

Imaginatively, the Government decided to convene another committee, this time under Baroness Wootton. Its report, published at the end of 1968, argued that whilst it did not think cannabis should be legalised, it should be made distinct in law from other illegal drugs. 

Finally in 1970, Home Secretary James Callaghan introduced a new Bill that was described during its passage through Parliament as an attempt to replace ‘…the present rigid and ramshackle collection of drug Acts by a single comprehensive measure’.[2] But the Bill was as ideological as it was pragmatic, and Callaghan himself had rejected the recommendations of Wootton.

The debates in both the Commons and the Lords indicate that not only did most Members of Parliament who spoke on the subject have little understanding of the complexities of drug use, but also that the theme of the ‘permissive society’ and its supposed excesses was central.

The Bill was approved in May 1971, given Royal Assent the same month and fully implemented after two more years. The Act also established the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), tasked with keeping the drug situation in the UK under review. 

Successive governments have tended to accept the recommendations of the Council but there have been clashes, such as in 2009 when there was a total breakdown of relations when Professor David Nutt, then Chair of the Council, was sacked by Home Secretary Alan Johnson after Nutt had claimed – with substantial evidence – that MDMA and LSD were less dangerous than alcohol. 

For all of this, what has actually been the impact of the MDA? Well, as Simon Jenkins recently pointed out in a blog for the Guardian, 27,000 children and teenagers are now involved in ‘country lines’ drug gangs. Jenkins had previously described the MDA as a law that has done ‘less good and more harm’ than any other law on the statute book.

It is difficult to argue with this. Far from stemming recreational drug use, use of illegal drugs only increased after the MDA and became endemic in cities during the 1980s as heroin became a significant social issue. In 1979, the number of notified heroin users exceeded 1,000 for the first time. 

Over the 1980s and 1990s, drugs like MDMA were also increasingly used to enhance users’ experiences, especially in rave contexts, yet the Government line remained the same. As drug and harm reduction expert Julian Buchanan argued in 2000, ‘two decades of prevention, prohibition and punishment have had little noticeable impact upon the growing use of illegal drugs’.[3]

The MDA also deterred drug users from seeking help for fear of legal repercussions and limited the opportunities of countless young people. Last year, Adam Holland noted in the Harm Reduction Journal that in the UK, drug-related deaths were at the highest level on record and that although enormous time and money has gone into combating the illicit drugs trade, the market has not stopped growing.[4]

Writing thirty years after the MDA, Buchanan had argued that a ‘bold and radical rethink of UK drug policy’ was needed. Such a rethink never materialised. In 2019, the House of Commons Select Committee on Drug Policy concluded that ‘UK drugs policy is failing’. Now after half a century it might be time for real radical change, and the anniversary presents a great opportunity for this conversation to gain momentum. 

Hallam Roffey is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. His research looks at the idea of ‘acceptability’ in English culture between 1970 and 1990, examining changing attitudes around sexually explicit imagery, violent media, offensive speech and blasphemy. You can find Hallam on Twitter @HallamRoffey


[1] John Glaister and Edgar Rentoul, ‘The Control of the Sale of Poisons and Dangerous Drugs’, British Medical Journal (1958;2), p. 1525.

[2] House of Lords debate (October 1969), Hansard volume 790, cols 189-90.

[3] Julian Buchanan and L. Young, ‘The War on Drugs—A War on Drug Users’, Drugs: Education, Prevention, Policy 7:4 (2000), pp. 409-22.

[4] Adam Holland, ‘An ethical analysis of UK drug policy as an example of a criminal justice approach to drugs: a commentary on the short film Putting UK Drug Policy into Focus’, Harm Reduction Journal 17:97 (2020).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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‘Illegitimate’ Cultures: from the Music Hall to the Rave

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At first glance, mid-Victorian entertainment culture and the current ‘illegal’ rave scene of Covid-Britain may appear wildly incomparable. But the early Victorian period, as illustrated by the cultural division between the ‘music hall’ and ‘legitimate theatre’ was pivotal in cementing the division between ‘illegitimate’ and ‘legitimate’ culture. Understanding the historical drivers behind these definitions of culture is crucial to disentangling contemporary ‘public health’ policy from the influence of ‘moral panic.’  Distinguishing between the two can reveal the broader influence of dominant class anxieties about cultures which appear to challenge economic or social ‘norms’, of which early music hall and rave culture are both examples. 

The summer of 2020 witnessed stark contradictions in public health messages and policies.  Whilst an inevitable wave of ‘illegal’ outdoor rave gatherings were condemned and supressed by police forces, simultaneously the public were being encouraged (and subsidised) to ‘eat out’ in restaurants, despite indoor spaces being widely deemed a greater danger for viral transmission. This speaks volumes about the push to maintain the ideology of ‘legitimate culture’, defined by its relationship to free market economics (to which restaurant culture is wedded) as being more important than the scientific realities of public health.  

The first organised and uniformed police force emerged in 1829, playing a key role in shaping ‘legitimate’ modes of culture in the newly expanding towns and cities of the Victorian era.  Arising from a middle-class fear of the expanding working classes, early policing was born out of a desire to impose discipline outside of the confines of the workplace upon sites of ‘unregulated’ leisure time –on the street or in the ale house. In the context of the Chartist movement of the 1830s, which saw mass demonstrations calling for wider enfranchisement, a fear of the ‘unruly crowd’ and its potential to challenge state power remained present throughout the century. 

The larger, more commercially minded ‘Music Hall’ venue emerged out of the smaller ale houses and singing saloons of the late 18th and early 19th century urban milieu. Often tied closely to the brewing industry, music halls were associated with drinking, smoking and less ‘respectable’ behaviour.  Their perceived lack of legitimacy, compared to ‘legitimate’ theatres, where smoking and drinking were forbidden, was solidified by the 1843 Theatres Act. This Act stipulated that only venues holding a Theatre License, appointed by the Lord Chamberlain, could legally perform plays or performances with a ‘strong narrative’. This distinction between the music hall and theatre reflected the increasing tendency from the Victorian era upon centralising state control over censorship. 

The Eat Out To Help Out scheme of the summer of 2020 encouraged and subsidised the public to gather in restaurants, despite indoor spaces being deemed dangerous for viral transmission. Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/8pc6VvR0gJs, Photographer: Nick Fewings

Associated with large gatherings in rural locations, a large part of the anxiety that the rave scene is associated with may stem from its physical dislocation from the regulation and surveillance of the urban space, a legacy that can be traced back to Victorian policing. It has been argued that the government night time economy policies of the 1990s, which sought to replace rave culture with tighter social controls, explicitly took aim at rave culture, driving it into commercial club spaces that could be regulated through licensing, rendering rave more visible and therefore subject to greater monitoring in the public sphere. 

Furthermore, unlike the Victorian music hall and ‘legitimate’ theatre, rave culture possesses neither a stake in broader social nor in economic capital, existing (largely) outside of the regulated entertainment industry. This helps to explain rave culture’s consistent suppression following its height during the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Passed in response to the infamous rave at Castle Morton in 1992, the 1994 ‘Criminal Justice and Public Order Act’ gave sweeping powers to stop unlicensed gatherings of more than a hundred people, with an emphasis on supressing events which played loud music with ‘repetitive beats’ – an extremely unsubtle reference to rave culture. 

A telling quote from a raver involved in the scene of the time mentions the class politics at play in suppressing particular cultures, as well as the relationship between ‘legitimate’ culture and free-market economics: ‘If it had been a big event, [which] had been staged [and] had cost thousands of pounds it would have been all right[..]But because it was poor people, with no money, doing something they haven’t been granted permission for, suddenly it was the crime of the century.’ 

Unlike rave culture, Music Hall would eventually become more accepted through its increasing ‘commercialisation’ during the later 19th century as a national entertainment industry. Conscious attempts were made to prove Music Hall’s legitimacy through self-censorship, curating more ‘respectable’ content, and deploying surveillance to regulate crowd behaviour, as demonstrated by numerous statements on theatre bill posters proclaiming police would be ‘in attendance.’ 

Whether we understand or support the rave scene or not, ‘rave culture is culture.’  It is possible to be both critical of the public health practices of rave events (as indeed even many within the scene have been), as well as considering it a culture in all its complexity (for what is culture without its contradictions and problematic aspects?) 

Taking leisure culture, including rave culture seriously, brings into question the role of the state, and how it has historically influenced and enforced cultural norms, through both legislation and use of police force.  In both the music hall and rave culture, state suspicion and regulation has stemmed from a mistrust of forms of mass leisure that have risen ‘from below’; rave culture’s continued suppression, however, is in part due to its explicit refusal to ‘commercialise’ and become ‘respectable’ in the way that music hall did. In light of a recent investigation into a raver in Bristol being mauled by a police dog, asking serious questions about whose culture is given ‘legitimacy’, and the public health implications for this in the physical realm, has never been more pertinent.  

Izzy Hadlum is currently a History Masters student at the University of Sheffield.  Her research deals with entertainment culture in Mid-Victorian Sheffield, with a focus on the dynamic between respectability and class across Music Hall and Theatre.   

Cover Image: ‘Rave culture is culture’. Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/EHWtxXpiDD0, photographer: Dima Pechurin

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British Imperial Revival in the Early Cold War: The Malayan ‘Emergency’ 1948-60

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As we gain perspective on a summer of global protest, it is clear that the traditional narrative of British colonial history is being questioned by the public at large. The toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in July represents a direct challenge to conventional histories of the beginnings of the British empire in the seventeenth century. But what of the end of empire?

Following the Second World War Britain declined as a world power, dwarfed by the bi-polar superpower colossi of the United States and the USSR and hamstrung by the inexorable disappearance of her imperial possessions. The sun of Empire, we are told, set across the world.[1]

From this perspective, British power and influence declined in relative terms. However, as recent research based on the ever-increasing release of official records has shown, this interpretation misses crucial discontinuities in the historical record. Recent scholarship by John Newsinger argues that Clement Attlee’s Labour government was as much a resurgent colonial warfare state as a domestic welfare state in the immediate postwar years.[2] Anne Deighton argues that Britain’s role in ideological battlegrounds of the nascent Cold War is demonstrably greater than traditional interpretations have suggested.[3] 

One concrete example of postwar Britain as a colonial Cold Warrior state is the Malayan Emergency of 1948-60. The conflict has been described by Malaysian-born anthropologist Yao Souchou as ‘a small, distant war’ not for its inconsequentiality in global affairs, but for its relegation to the side-lines of the historiography of the Cold War.[4] Bringing the conflict to the forefront of our attention, I believe, challenges the broad narrative of postwar ‘decline’ and demonstrates the continued international influence of the British state in the post-war period.

The ‘Emergency’ was the longest conflict fought by British forces in the twentieth century. With the aim of achieving national independence, the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) fought a bitter campaign of insurgency against the British colonial government of Malaya and its local and Commonwealth allies. Despite their determined (and British-supported) resistance to wartime Japanese occupation, the MCP were ultimately defeated. More than just a decisive victory for the British empire, the campaign in Malaya was in fact the only conclusive military success by the Western powers in the entirety of the Cold War period.[5]

THE BRITISH ARMY IN MALAYA, 1957 (HU 51581) Men of the 48th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, in action against a terrorist hide-out near Segri Sembilan, Malaya. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, © IWM. Used on an IWM non-commercial licence. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205216100 [Accessed 22 November 2020]

Because of its abundant tin and rubber resources, Malaya, according to the British Colonial Sectary, was ‘by far the most important source of dollars in the Colonial Empire’.[6] With the British economy profoundly weakened by the loss of the former Indian territories, further capitulation in Asia was simply not acceptable. Although Marshall Plan aid chiefly funded Britain’s extensive (and expensive) programmes of urban revival and welfare reforms, a direct consequence of the economic recovery of ‘the West’ was the continuation of European colonialism for another two decades.[7]

The release of classified Foreign Office files has expanded our understanding of Britain’s propaganda machine in the early Cold War period. The intent of the Information Research Department (IRD) to promote Britain as a socialist ‘Third Force’ in world politics via its attacks on the Soviet Union and Communism is only now being adequately explored.[8] These offensive tactics were mirrored by a defensive approach to events in Malaya. Repeating the rhetoric used to describe the Jewish Irgun and Lehi in Palestine, British state propaganda relied on the dual euphemism of the ‘banditry’ of Malayan Communist rebels and the ‘emergency’ of their anti-colonial independence war in international representations of the conflict.[9]

The conflict was presented as arising from an international communist movement. It was done so with nuance: too strong a line could further align the Malayan Chinese ethnic group with the MCP; the opposite could have given the impression that the British were crushing a true nationalist movement. After the proclamation of American anti-colonial policy in the 1947 Truman Doctrine, the chief aim of British propaganda was to ‘manipulate the American colossus’ into thinking that political and economic support of an archaic colonial regime was ‘the corollary of [Communist] containment’.[10] To this, end, as the war continued, international British propaganda utilised the carefully chosen term ‘Communist terrorists’ in their representations of the MCP.[11]

In terms of national propaganda, a great deal of scholarly attention is often given to the figure of Sir Gerald Templer. Serving as Director of Operations and High Commissioner of Malaya from 1951 to 1954, his view that ‘the answer [to defeating the insurgency] lies not in pouring more troops into the jungle but in the hearts and minds of the [Malayan] people’ has dominated conventional historical analysis of the conflict.[12] A defining component of contemporary ‘cultural Cold War’ strategies, we must remain wary of attributing the ‘hearts and minds’ metaphor too much importance in Britain’s victory over the MCP. Indeed, the position of Templer as a semi-mythic figure in the historiography of the conflict simultaneously empowers the actions of the Western elite and obscures the reality of the counter-insurgency tactics the British utilised throughout the conflict.

THE MALAYAN EMERGENCY 1948-1960 (D 87947) Men of 22 Special Air Service Regiment practice carrying a casualty to a waiting helicopter during a training exercise in a jungle clearing at Ulu Langat, near Kuala Lumpur. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, © IWM. Used on an IWM non-commercial licence. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205212427 [Accessed 20 November 2020]

Based on racially motivated colonial attitudes exemplified by events of the 1948 Batang Kali massacre, Bennett argues that mass arrests, deportation and destruction of property corresponded to a deliberate British campaign of ‘counter-terror’.[13] The forced re-settlement of over 500,000 Malayans in ‘New Villages’ with the ostensible aim of removing Communist influence were in fact little more than concentration camps built to keep the rural Chinese population under strict surveillance and control.[14] The tactics employed by the British state against the MCP demonstrated a resolve to maintain dominance of the colonial periphery by often brutal means.

A colonial attitude of imperial retrenchment, implemented through and influencing a nascent Cold War framework, saw Malaya as a continued source of colonial power for the British state. Britain successfully re-imposed colonial order by armed intervention, protecting its markets and control of natural resources essential to economic recovery. An extensive and influential network of regional intelligence informed international and national propaganda strategies to manipulate public opinion with the objective of the furtherance of British colonial Cold War objectives. Brutal and systematic detention, deportation and violence facilitated the crushing of the MCP revolt.

The summer of 2020 has shown the power of challenging traditionally idolised historical figures from the beginnings of the British empire. Similarly, a revisionist interpretation of the Malayan Emergency makes it clear that in postwar South-East Asia, there was no gracefully setting sun.

Liam Raine is an MA Modern History student at the University of Sheffield, currently researching the metaphorical structures of the Cold War. This blog piece is based on an essay written in submission for the module HST674 ‘International Relations and the Early Cold War in Britain’. For those interested in the longer research project, please contact Liam at liamandrewraine@gmail.com.


Cover image: A Malayan guide passes tracking information to the British sergeant of an infantry patrol during the Malayan Emergency. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, © IWM. Used on an IWM non-commercial licence. https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205212424 [Accessed 22 November 2020].

[1] L. James, ‘Part Five: The Setting Sun’ in The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (New York, 2006), pp. 523-622.

[2] J. Newsinger, ‘War, Empire and the Attlee government 1945-51’, Race & Class, 60.1 (2018), pp. 61-67.

[3] A. Deighton, ‘Britain and the Cold War’ in M. Leffler and O. A. Westad (eds), The Cambridge History of the Cold War, Volume 1: Origins (New York, 2010), pp. 112-32.

[4] S. Yao, The Malayan Emergency: Essays on a small, distant war (Copenhagen, 2016).

[5] B. Z. Keo, ‘A small, distant war?’, History Compass 17.3 (2019), pp. 1-2.

[6] Memo, by Colonial Secretary, 1 July 1948, C.P. (48) 171, CAB 129/25.

[7] W. I. Hitchcock, ‘The Marshall Plan and the creation of the West’ in M. Leffler and O. A. Westad (eds), The Cambridge History of the Cold War, Volume 1: Origins (New York, 2010), p. 162; O. A. Westad, The Cold War: A World History (New York, 2017), p. 265.

[8] H. Wilford, ‘The Information Research Department: Britain’s secret Cold War weapon revealed’, Review of International Studies 24.3 (1998), pp. 353-69.

[9] S. L. Carruthers, Winning Hearts and Minds (Leicester, 1995).

[10] J. Darwin, ‘Diplomacy and decolonization’, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 28.3 (2000), p. 16.

[11] P. Deery, ‘The terminology of terrorism: Malaya, 1948-1952’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 34.2 (2003), pp. 241-47.

[12] R. Clutterbuck, The long, long war (London, 1967), p. 3; R. Thompson, Defeating Communist Insurgency (London, 1966).

[13] H. Bennett, ‘“A very salutary effect”’, Journal of Strategic Studies 32.3 (2009), pp. 415-44.

[14] T.-P. Tan, ‘Like a concentration camp, lah’: Chinese grassroots experience of the Emergency and New Villages in British Colonial Malaya’, Chinese Southern Diaspora Studies 3 (2009), pp.216-28.

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Decolonisation Strategies: Portico Library Curators at Sheffield University

What it is to be here banner WEB (1)

Radha Kapuria with Helen Idle and James Moss

A chance visit to Manchester’s historic Portico Library in September 2020 revealed a fascinating exhibition on the colonisation of Australia. Titled ‘What it is to be here: Colonisation and Resistance’, this exhibition marks 250 years since the Gweagal people in Kamay (Botany Bay) first encountered strangers, led by Lieutenant James Cook, or ‘Captain Cook’, approaching their shores. 

The exhibition launched in April, and chimed well with the renewed debates around decolonisation and ‘Black Lives Matter’ that followed the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 in the US. In step with these current movements, an exhibition panel also covered poignant photographs from the ongoing ‘Aboriginal Lives Matter’ campaign across Australia. 

As an instructor on Sheffield’s sector-leading undergraduate module, ‘Conflict, Cultures and (De)Colonisation’, I was also struck by how the exhibition’s layout and content were so relevant to our classroom discussions. Our module considers the growth and governance of empires, and the role of decolonisation struggles, in shaping our contemporary world. On approaching Portico Library staff, I was delighted to find a Sheffield History alumnus in the Librarian, Dr Thom Keep. Thom introduced me to the library’s Exhibitions Curator, James Moss, and the force behind the exhibition, Dr Helen Idle, a researcher based at the Menzies Australia Institute at King’s College London. 

My colleagues Prof Siobhan Lambert-Hurley and Dr Esme Cleall, who lead the teaching team on the module, were similarly enthused at the remarkable synergies between the exhibition and especially our rubric for Week 6, on ‘Materiality and Ownership’. During this week we examine the representations of objects–some stolen from indigenous populations across the world–in museums in the West and how they are bound up in histories of colonialism. Slowly, a plan emerged, where the Portico curators would deliver a guest lecture to our students on ‘Decolonising a Museum/Library Exhibition’. This lecture would provide students a window into the curators’ experience of putting together an exhibition that consciously tackled the challenges of decolonising knowledge, narratives and artefacts, through creative and self-reflexive methodologies. 

Western Australian timber samples from Manchester Museum, displayed in The Portico Library’s exhibition. Photograph: Apapat Jai-in Glynn. 

The session with Helen, James, and Apapat Jai-in Glynn (art curator and collaborator on the exhibition) on Thursday 29 October was a massive hit with students. Students were especially interested since their seminar activities for the coming week required them to design their own ‘decolonised’ museum galleries on the British Empire. A series of inventive questions from students ranged from repatriation and the curators’ partnership with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the impact of the exhibition on other museums, to efforts toward genuine reconciliation in Australia, the ethics of representation in museum displays, and the difficulties of knowledge production through colonial archives. We will now turn to the experiences of Helen and James, as independent researcher and library curator respectively, in assembling this remarkable exhibition at Manchester.

Portico Library curators answer questions (in text form on the right) from students during the Google Meets session at the University of Sheffield on Thursday 29 October. Image Courtesy: Radha Kapuria.

Helen Idle:

When you glance around the open space of the Portico Library your eyes will alight on a black and white photograph. A woman stands tall, wrapped in a blanket with her head bowed. She is covered but for her face, and her voice. Here Rene Kulitja, artist and Traditional Owner of Uluru (the monolithic rock formation in central Australia), performs a story of the colonisation of her people through the very stillness of a photograph. She shows how the English language of the British tries to smother her language, law and culture: ‘But we are not English. We are Pitjantatjara!’

Pulangkita pitjangu (When the blanket came), displayed at the Portico Library, talks back to an official account of James Cook’s 1770 voyage that arrived in Australia. The account, compiled by Hawkesworth (1773) and held in the Portico Library, records the ‘possession’ of Australia for King Geroge III under the assumption of terra nullius – land belonging to no-one. The photograph counters this claim showing that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to survive and thrive in their country. 

Two young children in The Portico Library watching a video of artist Rene Kultja addressing audience members at Lowitja Institute. Above them hangs Rene’s artwork Pulangkita pitjangu.

For Rene Kulitja:

‘The blanket represents an important story with the significance of Captain Cook’s story, it’s on the same level. This is our side of the story.’

Putting these together affords a close re-reading of the account to reveal that Cook and his companions (eg. Joseph Banks) had seen people living along the east coast of Australia.

Shortlisted for the Australian National Photographic Portrait Prize in 2020, the edition on display was made by special arrangement with Rene Kulitja and photographer Rhett Hammerton. It journeyed from Melbourne to Brisbane to Alice Springs to Docker River via Uluru and Kata Tjuta before arriving in Manchester. In the collective effort to bring the photograph to Manchester we see a commitment to a principle of exhibition, ‘nothing about us without us’, and support the work of the artwork, ‘to get the story straight.’

In the words of Rene Kulitja:

‘It’s crucial we make one story out of our shared history, to get the story straight. At the moment, it’s too one-sided, the Cook side is bigger than the Blanket story. Finding a balance is really important for the wellbeing of our children

James Moss:

The Portico Library’s mission is to make its building, history and collection work for all the people of Manchester and beyond, and especially to share experiences and perspectives with and from those excluded by its early membership. Established at the height of British empire-building in 1806, the Library initially served only wealthy, white, male users (albeit including radical progressives, abolitionists and feminists) and overwhelmingly represents their voices among its books and manuscripts. It was central to Manchester’s Industrial Revolution, since it provided 400 of the leading industrialists, inventors and politicians with daily access to news, books and information, plus a space in which they met, networked and did deals, in the years during which Manchester grew from a town of about 60,000 to the biggest industrial city in the world. For the current team, who are committed to nurturing a socially responsible organisation, this unrepresentative nineteenth-century collection creates a challenge, but also an opportunity. By exposing the inequities upon which Britain’s prosperity was built, and those original texts that cultivated the white supremacist systems we inhabit, we can stimulate productive conversations among our visitors and users. 

The Portico Library, exterior and interior. Photographs: James Moss.

Port Jackson/Sydney in 1801. David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales from its first settlement in January 1788 to August 1801, 1802. The Portico Library collection.

A view of the exhibition inside the Library. Photograph: Apapat Jai-in Glynn.

To achieve this, we have introduced increasingly collaborative and self-reflexive methods, working with experts-by-experience like Rene Kulitja and directly quoting campaigners such as Mangubadijarri Yanner to offset the obscurantism of the Library’s historic texts and our own inevitable biases. Rene’s photograph Pulangkita pitjangu, collaborative painting and text (Uluru Statement from the Heart) and performance at the Lowitja Institute are all intended to reach across lands and waters, time and place, to call each viewer and reader to action. In a Library whose books contain thousands of words about Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Islander people, the very least we can do today is to share words and intentions from artists and speakers like Rene. But this is of course just the start of what is needed. 

Anangu artists with the Uluru Statement from the Heart. From left: Christine Brumby, Charmaine Kulitja, Rene Kulitja, Happy Reid. Photograph: Clive Scollaly.

    A copy of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, as displayed in the Portico exhibition.

As a small charity, our budgets are often stretched, but we have committed to always paying artists and contributors, and covering the additional costs of ensuring legitimate voices are heard. 

The necessity to work with people with first-hand lived experience of exclusion and marginalisation is directly relevant to decolonisation, and translates into institutions ensuring that their work and contributions are well-paid for. To exhibit with Rene, who speaks a Pitjantjatjara language and based more than 1,500km from the nearest city, and in a time zone 9.5 hours distant from Manchester—and whose priorities are distinct from those of exhibition producers in England —factoring in significant extra time between communications was essential. Colleagues like Helen and Apapat who are conscientious and patient but also responsive and adaptable are also vital. 

The process of addressing the enormous imbalances of the history we have inherited does not have an end point. However, the direction we choose can either help perpetuate the privileges that benefit a few while disadvantaging others–especially marginalised communities–or generate new ideas and an enthusiasm for change.

***

The exhibition ‘What it is to be here: Colonisation and Resistance’ is available online to view here.

Radha Kapuria is Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the Department of History in Sheffield. She researches and teaches cultural histories of South Asia and the Global South, with a specific interest in music and gender history, migration, displacement and borderlands, and conflict, decolonisation and culture. She tweets @RadhaKapuria .

Helen Idle is a Research Associate with the Menzies Australia institute at King’s College London. Her research considers how visual cultures, art, and artefacts work as agents of knowledge production in museums, galleries and libraries. She also produced the exhibition ‘Entwined: knowledge and power in the age of Captain Cook’ at the Portico Library. She uses creative narrative and self-reflexive methodologies to work towards decolonisation within these domains. She tweets @Helen1i .

James Moss is an artist and curator who uses artworks, events and collaborations to interpret collections’ significance with new audiences. He is currently the Exhibitions Curator at The Portico Library in Manchester. He has curated a series of site-responsive co-produced projects to promote and contextualise the Portico’s 19th-century collection, including Made In Translation, and Cut Cloth: Contemporary Textiles & Feminism. The Portico Library tweets @ThePortico .

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