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Modern British History

Decolonisation Strategies: Portico Library Curators at Sheffield University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Politics of Churchill’s Statue

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During Britain’s strange summer of 2020, the statues of long-dead figures became live political issues. Black Lives Matter protestors threw slave-trader Edward Colston’s effigy into Bristol harbour, an act that shocked many, but that was as nothing to the reaction provoked by the treatment meted out to Winston Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square. During another Black Lives Matter protest this was daubed with the claim that the wartime Prime Minister – voted the Greatest Briton in 2002 – was a racist. The Daily Express believed the statue had as a consequence been ‘desecrated’. A week later far-right demonstrators, many of them associated with racist views, gathered near the statue, ostensibly to defend it from further attack, some of them chanting ‘Sir Winston Churchill, he’s one of our own’. By then however the statue had been boarded up and hidden from view.

Some saw the defacement of Churchill’s statue and the response to it as another episode in Britain’s ‘culture wars’, an unwelcome development in the country’s increasingly fractious politics. But the statues of great figures have always been political, their sponsors invariably hoping to impose their view of the notables’ significance onto the future, to keep them in some way permanently alive. Yet, as Churchill’s Parliament Square effigy itself illustrates, such statues even at the moment of their creation can be subject to contestation: its 2020 defacement is not as novel an act as it might at first appear.

After Churchill retired from front line politics in 1955, his supporters unleashed a wave of statues and other memorials intended to make permanent their preferred remembrance of his wartime role as the nation’s saviour, one which led The Times in 1954 to describe him without qualification, as the ‘greatest man of all time’. Most notably soon after Churchill’s 1965 state funeral the House of Commons commissioned a statue to be placed in the Members’ Lobby. When unveiled in 1969 according to the Guardian correspondent, ‘there was an audible intake of breath’ from those present. ‘It was’, he went on, ‘for all the world as though Churchill had himself thrown off his coverings by taking a sudden step forward. There he stood once more … avid for new burdens.’ Indeed, such were the statue’s presumed magical qualities it quickly became the practice of Conservative MPs to stroke its left foot for luck, something responsible for the foot being almost worn away.

Even before that effigy was completed, in 1968 Conservative MP John Tilney in a question to Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson started the process which would end with Churchill’s Parliament Square statue. Tilney called for the creation of another likeness ‘of perhaps the greatest leader of this nation and the greatest Parliamentarian for centuries.’ The reaction to Tilney’s suggestion revealed the partisan nature of his request. Wilson was reluctant to endorse the sentiment and so dissembled. But, reflecting the enmity in which Churchill the class warrior – as opposed to national saviour – was held amongst South Wales miners, Labour MP Emrys Hughes sarcastically questioned whether another statue was ‘absolutely unnecessary because nobody can forget him?’

Undeterred, Tilney raised the matter a few months later. Wilson remained unwilling to back the project and refused it state funds but promised to facilitate the statue’s construction should broad support be made evident, which he doubted. When the matter was raised in the second chamber the Labour Leader of the Lords, Lord Shackleton, claimed to be not unsympathetic to the initiative, but then proceeded to list all the memorials then dedicated to Churchill, clearly implying another one was unnecessary. But another Labour peer, Lord Blyton, a former miner, was more direct in his criticism of the scheme, pointedly stating that, ‘I think we should remember that he [Churchill] did not win the last war by himself. He had men like Clem Attlee and Ernie Bevin.’

After Tilney received the support of 150 MPs and various other worthies, Wilson was however obliged to endorse the formation of a committee to oversee the creation of a statue, which was unveiled in November 1973, the ceremony being watched by a crowd of over 1,000 including the Queen.

Since then and especially after the turn of the century Churchill’s statue has regularly been defaced or subject to lèse-majeste as perspectives about his contribution to British history have changed. During London’s May Day protests of 2000 a strip of grass was placed on its head to give the impression Churchill sported a Mohican haircut. Those responsible evaded the police but James Matthews, the 25 years-old former soldier who sprayed its mouth with red paint so it looked as if blood was dripping from it, did not. To him, ‘Churchill was an exponent of capitalism and of imperialism and anti-Semitism. A Tory reactionary vehemently opposed to the emancipation of women and to independence in India’.

Ten years later in what the Daily Mail described as an attack on ‘respect and common decency’ young protestors at a demonstration against an increase in university tuition fees showed what they thought about Churchill by urinating on the statue’s plinth. In 2012, in a more sober and focused way, in order to highlight the need to tackle problems associated with mental illness, campaigners placed a straightjacket on the statue, in recognition of Churchill’s increasingly well-known bouts of depression.

Even before it was unveiled, Churchill’s Parliament Square statue was the subject of dispute. Those well-placed figures who regarded him as the man who single-handedly saved Britain from defeat at the hands of Nazi Germany prevailed; but their view of Churchill’s place in history – and of the character of Britain itself – was always contested. Similarly, culture has been a constant political battleground: the events of the summer of 2020 are not so unique after all.

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham and the author with Bill Schwarz and Richard Toye of The Churchill Myths (Oxford University Press, 2020).

Cover image: Big Ben and Churchill Statue, courtesy of johnnyhypno https://www.needpix.com/photo/1805316/big-ben-churchill-statue-westminster-clock-england-london-politics-government [Accessed 08/10/2020].

This blog originally appeared in a slightly different form at: https://blog.oup.com/2020/09/the-defacing-of-churchills-statue/

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“Freewheelin’ to Ban-happy”?: Students and No-Platform in Britain

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Since around the end of 2013 there has been a moral panic around freedom of speech on British university campuses. This emerged after a number of public figures scheduled to speak at various universities and student unions were disinvited due to student pressure and organising – what is known as ‘no-platforming’.

This took place within a broader argument in the British media about ‘censorious students’, consisting not just of debates around ‘no-platform’ but also ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’.

For example, in December 2015 the Editor of the right-libertarian publication Spiked Online, Brendan O’Neill, used the term ‘Stepford Students’ in an article for the Spectator. He described how, in his view, students had been rebranded as fragile, overgrown children who needed to be shielded from ‘harmful’ ideas and who demanded the right to feel comfortable even at university which should be a space of challenging ideas and intellectual discomfort.

O’Neill characterised this development as a sudden and radical reversal. He argued that it is ‘hard to think of any other section of society that has undergone as epic a transformation as students have’ and claimed that in the ‘space of a generation students have gone from freewheelin’ to ban-happy’, from ‘askers of awkward questions’ to ‘suppressors of offensive speech’.

This idea of mollycoddled ‘snowflake’ students caught on and achieved a relatively dominant position in media coverage of free speech in Britain and British universities.[1]

Most of the discussion, though, has been devastatingly ahistorical. As the historian Evan Smith points out in his recent monograph, ‘no-platform’ has a much longer and more complex history than contemporary media discussions acknowledge.[2]

Smith argues that ‘no-platform’ emerged out of a longer antifascist tradition in Britain of denying a platform to fascists in the inter- and early post-war periods through tactics such as heckling and the physical denial of space. Whilst true, we might put these longer traditions aside for the moment to look at the issue of free speech at universities, which became a matter of media interest in the 1960s.

In May 1968, for example, an article in the Spectator compared what it termed ‘liberal’ and ‘revolutionary’ students, and noted there was tension between the two because the ‘liberals’ were struggling with their studies due to their ‘free speech being howled down’ by the demonstrations of the ‘revolutionary minority’.[3]

The next year the Vice-Chancellor of Essex University, Dr. Albert Sloman, expressed his concern at how militant students were killing free speech and complained that important questions were no longer being debated in universities as frankly or as often because visiting speakers were regularly being ‘drowned out’.[4]

During the 1960s and 1970s, rather than Milo Yinnopolous or Tommy Robinson, it was often Conservative MPs like Enoch Powell or Keith Joseph who were being denied platforms. For instance, when Powell was invited to speak at the annual dinner of the Conservative Association at St. Andrews in 1973, he had attracted so much previous opprobrium on other campuses that the Association deliberately printed the wrong date on posters advertising the dinner, only informing students buying tickets what the real date was in order to avoid disruption.[5]

Referring to Powell being prevented from speaking at Dundee University the year before, one commentator, again in the Spectator, complained that students were ‘encouraged to regard themselves as infants whose tantrums will not be held against them’ and that they were ‘pampered…in the most regressive and childlike attitudes and granted exemption from the adult world’.[6]

Here – in 1972 – were almost identical criticisms to those being made today and even the same language being used – of infantilisation, childlike attitudes and the characterisation of students as regressive children who urgently need to grow up.

As Smith documents, 1973 saw protests against Professor Hans Eysenck at LSE (for his research on racial elements in the inheritance of intelligence) and the occupation of a lecture hall at Sussex to prevent the American academic Samuel P. Huntington from speaking. In May 1974, the former Monday Club Chairman Jonathan Guinness was prevente from speaking at Portsmouth Polytechnic with students even barricading a hall and drowning him out until he left.[7] Smith shows how ‘these events were portrayed as an end to free speech on campus and an example of a violent turn within the movement’, with this period an important ‘incubator’ for the idea of ‘no-platform’.[8]

1974 was indeed a particularly important moment as it was the year ‘no-platform’ became an official National Union of Students (NUS) policy rather than a disparate patchwork of policies at various student unions. The NUS conference in Liverpool voted to ‘smash’ the meetings of, amongst other groups, the Monday Club, the National Front (NF) and the National Democratic Party.[9]

There was, however, considerable opposition to the Liverpool motion. Surrey, for instance, disowned the policy of disruption by defending ‘the right of freedom of speech for all’.[10] One NUS-delegate from Manchester argued that right-wing views could be rejected through common sense and believing students did not have the capacity to do so was ‘patronising paternalism’.[11]

At the University of Sheffield, a debate took place on whether to let Brian Faulkner, the Unionist last Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, speak. The talk eventually went ahead with the Chairman of the Debates Committee arguing: ‘if he was evil let the man come and show himself to be evil during questioning…students are capable of judging for themselves’, whilst others argued that freedom of speech had to be weighed against ‘other important freedoms’.[12]

In fact, mirroring recent moves, disillusionment with the NUS and policies like ‘no-platform’ even caused some unions to disaffiliate, such as Aston and Manchester in 1976.[13]

The important point here is that there has been, for over half a century now, anxieties and debates about freedom of speech on campuses and so to suggest that, in the space of a generation, students have gone from ‘freewheelin’ to ‘ban-happy’ isn’t really true.  

It is also not quite accurate to say, as Sarah Ditum did in the New Statesman in 2014, that only recently has the tactic burst beyond the remit it was originally intended for. During the 1980s sexists and homophobes were targeted for denial of platforms and Smith argues that in this period the tactic was recalibrated in the face of these other threats following the decline of the NF, ‘indicating that debate around the repurposing of the tactic by students has endured for nearly 40 years’.[14]

There was another pronounced ‘spike’ of media interest from 1985, and by 1986 it was felt that freedom of speech in universities was under such an acute threat that parliamentary legislation was required to make it the duty of institutions to enforce the right of free speech. In the Commons, the Secretary of State for Education and Science spoke of the ‘considerable public unease’ about the way in which certain people had been denied the right of freedom of speech at universities, resulting in the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 which forced institutions to take ‘reasonable steps’ to guarantee freedom of speech within the law.[15]

So, a closer look at the history of ‘no-platform’ in Britain reveals that much of the discussion has remained essentially unchanged for decades. There have certainly been more intense moments where these themes gained greater visibility and traction in the media, but students have not gone from free speech warriors to censors in a generation and a ‘radical transformation’ simply does not accurately characterise changing attitudes to campus free speech.

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


Cover image: University of Michigan Student Walkout at the Ross School of Business, November 16, 2016. Courtesy of Corey Seeman, https://www.flickr.com/photos/cseeman/30895469312/in/photostream/ [Accessed 5 October 2020].

[1] I myself repeated a number of its tropes in what I now view as a somewhat embarrassing series of articles for Spiked and the Telegraph).

[2] E. Smith, No Platform: A History of Anti-Fascism, Universities and the Limits of Free Speech (Oxon, 2020).

[3] Spectator, 23 May 1968, p. 2.

[4] Daily Mail, 14 October 1969, p. 9.

[5] Darts, 23 February 1973, p. 3.

[6] Spectator, 18 November 1972, p. 11.

[7] Daily Mail, 18 May 1974, p. 14.

[8] Smith, No Platform, p, 82.

[9] Daily Mail, 5 April 1974, p. 13.

[10] Guardian, 29 May 1974, p. 5.

[11] Guardian, 5 April 1974, p. 7.

[12] Darts, 13 May 1974, p. 7; Darts, 13 May 1974, p. 1.

[13] Darts, 19 February 1976, p. 1, 12.; Daily Mail, 5 February 1976, p. 9.

[14] Smith, No Platform, p. 113.

[15] B.P.P, HC, 11 February 1986, Freedom of Speech (Universities and Institutions of Higher Education).

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‘I don’t think I’m Wrong about Stalin’: Churchill’s Strategic and Diplomatic Assumptions at Yalta

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On 23 February 1945 Churchill invited all ministers outside the War Cabinet to his room at the House of Commons to hear his account of the Yalta conference and the one at Malta that had preceded it. The Labour minister Hugh Dalton recorded in his diary that “The PM spoke very warmly of Stalin. He was sure […] that as long as Stalin lasted, Anglo-Russian friendship could be maintained.” Churchill added: “Poor Neville Chamberlain believed he could trust with Hitler. He was wrong. But I don’t think I’m wrong about Stalin.”[1]

Just five days later, however, Churchill’s trusted private secretary John Colville noted the arrival of:

“sinister telegrams from Roumania showing that the Russians are intimidating the King and Government […] with all the techniques familiar to students of the Comintern. […] When the PM came back [from dining at Buckingham Palace] […] he said he feared he could do nothing. Russia had let us go our way in Greece; she would insist on imposing her will in Roumania and Bulgaria. But as regards Poland we would have our say. As we went to bed, after 2.00 a.m. the PM said to me, ‘I have not the slightest intention of being cheated over Poland, not even if we go to the verge of war with Russia.”[2]

At an initial glance, there seems to be a powerful contradiction between these different sets of remarks. In the first, Churchill appears remarkably naïve and foolish, putting his faith in his personal relationship with a man whom he knew to be a mass murderer. In the second he seems strikingly, even recklessly bellicose, contemplating a new war with the Soviets, his present allies, even before the Germans and the Japanese had been defeated.

Surprising though it may seem, the disjuncture is not as large as it appears on the surface. Relations with the USSR and the future of Poland were not the only things that were at stake at Yalta. The Big Three took important decisions regarding the proposed United Nations Organization, and the post-war treatment of Germany, and even Anglo-US relations were not uncomplicated. In this post, however, I want to focus on the Polish issue and the broader question of how Churchill viewed the Soviet Union and its place in international relations more generally. I will outline three key assumptions that governed Churchill’s approach and which explain the apparent discrepancies in his remarks upon his return.

Assumption 1: The key to the Soviet enigma was the Russia national interest.

This assumption is the one that needs explaining at greatest length. In a radio broadcast given in the autumn of 1939, a month after the outbreak of the Second World War, Churchill told his audience: “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”[3]

What Churchill meant was that the Soviet Union was acting on traditional Great Power lines, in a rational and predictable way. This was a striking, and remarkably sanguine, thing to say just a few months after the conclusion of the Nazi-Soviet pact. The pact had clearly not disrupted his conclusion, reached earlier in the thirties, that the USSR was a potentially responsible actor with which it was possible for Britain to collaborate.

That conclusion was in marked contrast to Churchill’s attitude in the fifteen years after 1917. To him, in the aftermath of WWI, the Bolsheviks were ‘the avowed enemies of the existing civilization of the world’.[4] He believed that Lenin, Sinn Féin and the Indian and Egyptian nationalist extremists were all part of ‘a world-wide conspiracy’ to overthrow the British Empire.[5] His central objections to Bolshevism, then, were a) that it involved a reversion to barbarism, and b) that its proponents were attempting to spread its seditious principles globally.

As late as 1931 he was portraying the USSR as a “gigantic menace to the peace of Europe”.[6] There followed almost three years in which he failed to offer substantive comment on the Soviet Union, a period during which, however, he appears to have significantly adjusted his views. The rise of Hitler was of course crucial here. In August 1934, the Sunday Express reported that Churchill had had a change of heart on Russia. An article by the journalist Peter Howard was headlined: ‘Mr. Churchill Changes His Mind: The Bogey Men of Moscow are Now Quite Nice.’[7]

Howard’s piece was prompted by a speech by Churchill the previous month. In this he had praised the proposal – which in fact never came off – of a mutual-aid treaty between the USSR, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. This was an idea, Churchill said, which involved “the reassociation of Soviet Russia with the Western European system.” He cited the speeches of Soviet foreign minister Maxim Litivinov. These, he said, “had seemed to give the impression which I believe is a true one, that Russia is most deeply desirous of maintaining peace at the present time. Certainly, she has a great interest in maintaining peace.”

It was not enough, in Churchill’s view, to talk about the USSR as “peace-loving” because “every Power is peace-loving always.” Rather:  “One wants to see what is the interest of a particular Power and it is certainly the interest of Russia, even on grounds concerning her own internal arrangements to preserve peace.”[8] Thus, by the mid-1930s Churchill had reached the conclusion that the USSR had abandoned world revolution and that, acting once again as a traditional Great Power, it shared Britain’s interest in preserving the peace of Europe. This determined his attitude at the time of the Munich crisis in 1938 and held good through to the time of Yalta.

Assumption 2: Stalin would respect ‘spheres of interest’ and the so-called ‘percentages agreement’.

The Moscow summit of October 1944 was the occasion of the notorious “percentages agreement”, via which Churchill believed he had secured Stalin’s consent for the division of the Balkans into British and Soviet spheres of influence. What, if anything, Stalin had really agreed is open to debate.[9]  It is striking, though, that the Soviet press reported that the two men had reached genuine unanimity over Rumania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Greece, and warmly welcomed the “disappearance of the Balkan powderkeg” from the European scene.[10] Crucially, Poland was not mentioned in the agreement. This explains why Churchill did not feel able to protest about Soviet actions in Rumania and Bulgaria yet spoke of his willingness to go to the brink of war over Poland.

Assumption 3: The Polish government-in-exile would best serve its own cause by not rocking the boat, and that Soviet human rights abuses were best swept under the carpet.

This assumption is best illustrated by a 1943 diary entry by Ivan Maisky, the Soviet ambassador to London. This related to the notorious Katyn forest massacre, perpetrated by Soviet forces in 1940; the Nazis had recently announced the discovery of mass graves on territory now controlled by Germany. Maisky wrote:

“Churchill stressed that of course he does not believe the German lies about the murder of 10,000 Polish officers … But is this so? At one point during our conversation Churchill dropped the following remark: ‘Even if the German statements were to prove true, my attitude towards you would not change. You are a brave people, Stalin is a brave warrior, and at the moment I approach everything primarily as a soldier who is interested in defeating the common enemy as quickly as possible.”[11]

Churchill’s real concern was to prevent the affair damaging Anglo-Soviet relations, which he believed the Polish press in Britain was putting at risk. He fulminated to his Cabinet that “no Government which had accepted our hospitality had any right to publish articles of a character which conflicted with the general policy of the United Nations and which would create difficulties for this Government.”[12] One might say that there was a further assumption here, that history was driven by Great Men, like him and Stalin, and that Great Powers could legitimately settle the fates of nations over the heads of their peoples and governments. Omelettes could not be made without breaking eggs.

Conclusion

When he rose to speak in the Commons on 27 February in order to expound the Yalta agreement Churchill stated his impression “that Marshal Stalin and the Soviet leaders wish to live in honourable friendship and equality with the Western democracies. I feel also that their word is their bond.”[13] Justifying this latter claim in his memoirs, Churchill wrote: “I felt bound to proclaim my confidence in Soviet faith in order to procure it. In this I was encouraged by Stalin’s behaviour about Greece.”[14] As we have already seen, however, he claimed privately to be “Profoundly impressed with the friendly attitude of Stalin and Molotov.”[15] Colville wrote: “He is trying to persuade himself that all is well, but in his heart I think he is worried about Poland and not convinced of the strength of our moral position.”[16]

Churchill cannot be convicted of total naivety. There was a degree, certainly, to which he put too much faith in his own personal capacity to win over and deal with the Soviet leadership. But his comments about Stalin’s trustworthiness were to a great extent an attempt to put on a brave face in front of his ministers and the public. He never did make the mistake of assuming that Stalin was a pushover, but he did believe that he would respond to firm handling. More broadly his approach was determined by the belief that the Soviets were rational actors who could contribute to a constructive global order, even as they acted as rivals to Britain and the USA.

The conflict between the remarks recorded by Dalton and those recorded by Colville is explained by Churchill’s belief (or most profound assumption) in managed international rivalry. It was not that he thought that Yalta had solved or prevented conflict between the Great Powers but he believed that this type of international agreement could keep it within bounds. In respect of his apparent belief that Stalin could be induced to accept a free and democratic Poland, it is easy to see that Churchill was indeed wrong. But in regard to his overarching belief that the Soviet regime acted in line with rational calculations about its own national interests, rather than being primarily motivated by communist ideology, he may have been far less wrong than appears at first sight.

Richard Toye is Professor of Modern History at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Winston Churchill: A Life in the News and co-author (with Steven Fielding and Bill Schwarz of The Churchill Myths, both published by Oxford University Press in 2020. He tweets @RichardToye.

Cover Image: Winston Churchill sharing a joke with Joseph Stalin and his interpreter, Pavlov at Livadia Palace during the Yalta Conference in February 1945.

[1] Ben Pimlott (ed.), The Second World War Diary of Hugh Dalton, 1940–1945 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1986), p. 836 (entry for 23 February 1945).

[2] John Colville, The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries 1939-1955 (London: Phoenix, 2005), p. 536 (entry for 28 Feb. 1945).

[3] Broadcast of 1 Oct. 1939.

[4] Speech of 3 Jan. 1920.

[5] Speech of 4 Nov. 1920.

[6] ‘Winston Churchill Sees Soviet Russia as Gigantic Menace to the Peace of Europe’, New York American, 23 Aug. 1931.

[7] Sunday Express, 26 Aug. 1934.

[8] Speech of 13 July 1934.

[9] See Albert Resis, ‘The Churchill-Stalin Secret “Percentages” Agreement on the Balkans, Moscow, October 1944’, American Historical Review, Vol. 83, No. 2 (Apr., 1978), pp. 368-387.

[10] W.H. Lawrence, ‘Russians Indicate Unity on Balkans’, New York Times, 22 Oct. 1944.

[11] Gabriel Gorodetsky (ed.), The Maisky Diaries: Red Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s 1932-1943, Yale University Press, New Haven CT, 2015, p.509 (entry for 23 Apr. 1943).

[12] Cabinet Minutes, 27 Apr. 1943, WM (43) 59th Conclusions, CAB 65/34/13, The National Archives, Kew, London.

[13] Speech of 27 Feb. 1945.

[14] WSC, Triumph and Tragedy, p. 351.

[15] WSC to Clement Attlee and James Stuart, 14 Feb. 1945, Churchill Papers, CHAR 9/206B/207.

[16] Colville, Fringes of Power, p. 565 (entry for 27 Feb. 1945).

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What’s in a Special Relationship?

NATO_3c_1952_issue_U.S._stamp

The recent decision by US President Donald Trump to remove some American troops from Germany has brought much consternation to the international community. One interesting twist that has found its way into the conversation occurred when Anthony Blinker, policy advisor to presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden commented that the move weakened NATO and harmed Germany, ‘our [America’s] most important ally in Europe.’ Many on both sides of the Atlantic gasped at this comment, but none more so than those in the United Kingdom. The truth of the matter is – and this may come as a shock to some – that the United States has never seen the Anglo-American relationship as special. Yes, there are cultural and linguistic commonalities, but when it comes to foreign policy, the United States’ view on Britain and Europe does not match that of an Anglo-American ‘special relationship’.

It would be fair to say that Winston Churchill’s consistent message of a Special Relationship between Great Britain and the United States has ingrained the phrase in the minds of most citizens of both countries. Nevertheless, from a governmental and policy position, it has traditionally been a one-sided relationship. American leaders have rarely used the phrase and even more rarely acted on it to the point that former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt is reported to have said the ‘British clam to have a special relationship with the US, but if you mention this in Washington, no one knows what you are talking about.’ This idea was reinforced during the Brexit debates when US President Barack Obama stated that the UK would find itself at the back of the queue in US trade negotiations. The last fifty years provides a clearer understanding of how the US views the ‘Special Relationship.’

It would also be fair to say that since the end of the Second World War, US Foreign Policy has focused on a strong Europe. The ‘Special Relationship,’ as a purely Anglo-American relationship, is very much a British view. This does not mean that the US has not or does not value Britain. What is often forgotten, intentionally or not, is the importance of Europe to US foreign and trade policy since 1945. During the Second World War, the US and Britain, along with the Soviet Union, stood side-by-side to defeat the Axis. Once the war was over, and the Cold War began, the relationship between the US and Britain changed. What began as a strategic and military partnership during the Second World War quickly morphed into a relationship between two unequal partners. Despite Britain’s continually diminishing status, US presidents from Truman to Clinton understood the value of working with the British to meet US foreign policy goals.[1]

Nevertheless, US presidents have also focused on a strong Europe. Successive US presidents supported British involvement in different European projects. Dwight D. Eisenhower as Supreme Allied Commander Europe and later as President was firm in his belief that any plan to defend Europe required a British commitment to the continent. As such, he continually pushed Churchill, and later Eden and Macmillan, to take a more active role in NATO and the European Economic Community, which they eventually did.

The collapse and break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 left US leaders believing they did not need multilateral alliances. The US was and is, after all, the lone superpower. Since this time, presidents from both parties have chosen to ‘go it alone.’ In the meantime, Britain failed to stop its slide away from world power status. True, London remains one of the great financial centers in history but as a nation, they no longer have the military power to be more than a limited partner on the world stage. A no more shocking example of how far Britain’s defense capabilities have fallen can be found in the fact that the Royal Navy is now smaller than Pakistan’s navy and only slightly larger than Qatar’s, and the Royal Air Force is about the size of the Brazilian air force.[2]

Under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, it appeared that the US was moving closer to Germany as its leading partner in European issues. This was not a new position, per se, and it was not a result of Germany’s military prowess (it is also struggling to maintain a large and functioning force) but due to its economic power. The US position since 1945 has been to forge a durable transatlantic link between the US and Europe.[3] At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Germany had the fourth-largest economy in the world with a GDP that was more than $1 trillion larger than that of Britain. What is often overlooked in all of the discussion about America pulling closer to Germany and further away from Britain, or about the withdrawal of US troops from Germany is Europe’s importance to the US.

A look at the Bank of England’s Quarterly Bulletin provides an idea of how important Europe is to the US relative to the UK. America’s most trusted trade partners are still the United Kingdom and Europe. As the year 2020 rolls towards the last quarter, Germany is feeling angst about its special relationship with the US. While the US president drives that anxiety, a reversal of roles may be in the offing. With US politics becoming less reliable in recent years, Europe might decide to no longer rely on the US and ‘go it alone,’ just as the US did in the 1990s. However, with reports that Johnson’s government is secretly ‘desperate’ for a Biden victory in hopes of a revived comprehensive trade plan the chances of a Europe without the US seem small.  In light of Brexit, the UK might think about how the US has historically viewed the special relationship. For the US, the relationship that is and has always been special has been with Europe – a Europe that includes Britain.

Justin Quinn Olmstead is currently Associate Professor of History and Director of History Education at the University of Central Oklahoma with a Concurrent Appointment in the College of Arts and Humanities at Swansea University, Wales as Affiliate Faculty with responsibility for doctoral research supervision. He has edited two books, Reconsidering Peace and Patriotism during the First World War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), and Britain in the Islamic World: Imperial and Post-Imperial Connections (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). Dr. Olmstead has also published, The United States’ Entry into the First World War: The Role of British and German Diplomacy (Boydell & Brewer, 2018). He has contributed a chapter on the impact of military drones on foreign affairs in The Political Economy of Robots, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). Currently, he is the Assistant Editor for The Middle Ground Journal, Treasurer and Director of Membership for Britain and the World, and president elect of the Western Conference on British Studies. Just undertook his PhD at the University of Sheffield — you can find him on Twitter @OlmsteadJustin

Cover image: NATO 3-cent 1952 U.S. stamp, issued at the White House on April 4, 1952, honored the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NATO_3c_1952_issue_U.S._stamp.jpg [Accessed 11 August 2020].

[1] Melvyn P. Leffler, A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), p. 61.

[2] https://britainandtheworld.org/news/2020/6/4/batw-announces-a-virtual-roundtable

[3] Timothy Andrews Sayle, Enduring Alliance: A History of NATO and the Postwar Global Order (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019), p. 3.

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