Posts Tagged ‘politics’

Harrington, petitioning and the construction of public opinion
Edward Vallance (University of Roehampton)
Franco-British History seminar
8 November 2012

Abstract: Historians have noted that the republic depicted in Harrington’s ‘Oceana’ (1656) allowed little room for political debate beyond the confines of the senate. However, ‘Oceana’ did permit the localities to petition Parliament, allowing some channel for the expression of the popular voice, albeit in a form framed by the phylarchs, ‘the princes of the Tribes’. The Harringtonian circle itself engaged in petitioning activity in 1659, as the restoration of the Rump Parliament in May 1659 revived hopes of a new republican constitution. These political interventions were part of a wider petitioning campaign by the ‘well-affected’ in support of a republican settlement. Ruth Mayers, in her work on the revived English Commonwealth, has argued that these petitions provide   evidence of popular support for the republic. However, Harrington’s own view of the value of this petitioning activity, as expressed in Valerius and Publicola (1659) was much more pessimistic, seeing the exercise as essentially fruitless.


Harrington’s disappointment was understandable: the petitioning activity of 1659 bore little resemblance to the orderly scheme of political communication from periphery to centre mapped in ‘Oceana’. The cliques of the   ‘well-affected’ who submitted supportive petitions represented both a far more exclusive political constituency than the Harringtonians had hoped would be involved in settling a new Commonwealth, and a far more varied cross-section of the political nation than the ‘natural aristocracy’ that Harrington believed alone had the right to ‘debate’. Moreover, this petitioning activity was arguably orchestrated by the Rump and its propagandists rather than representing grassroots support for the Commonwealth. Nonetheless, this paper will suggest that the use of petitioning in 1659 to legitimate both the government and its programme set an important precedent that was followed by the Crown into the Restoration era.

To listen to this podcast click here.

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Imperial and World History seminar
15 October 2012
Tom Bentley (University of Sussex)
Reshaping the past: the lingering colonial present

This podcast is about 20 minutes long.

Gravestones after Herero Genocide

Violence is a driving force of colonialism, but it is not the only narrative available.  There is another that glosses Empire still in its contemporary terms: adventure, chivalry, civilising, and the saving of heathen souls.  That narrative, whilst more subdued than in the past, still exists.  You only need to look as far as the London Olympics Opening Ceremony to see a glimpse of that.

Tom Bentley’s paper looks at the present day view of the colonial past through four examples of apologies made by western leaders.

1)      Germany to the Herero (Namibia) for genocide – 2004

2)      Belgium for their complicity in the assassination of the then Republic of Congo’s leader – 2002

3)      Italy to Libya regarding colonisation – 2008

4)      Britain to Northern Ireland for Bloody Sunday – 2010

Bentley examines the language used in these apologies and asks why they are being made and for whom.  For example leaders often use apologies for their own agenda; cultivating an image of themselves as distant from previous governments and from those who had caused the act in the first place.  They talk to their own people, more than those whom they are making the apology.  The apology also seems to attempt a circumvention of plans to seek reparations by distancing their government from those who had caused the atrocity in the first place.

Secondly, Bentley looks at the familiar narratives in the apology.  The words sanitise the past and offer only an apology for one particular event.  These apologises are not, for example, for the entire colonisation programme, but for one blip where things went wrong.  The apology also serves the present, asking something of those they are apologising to and often seeking a gain for themselves.

Finally, the apology seeks to stamp on the event a conclusive official account of the event.  The apologiser is authorising a particular history of an event and making it official.

To listen to this podcast click here.

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British History in the Long-eighteenth Century
 ‘Love, bitter wrong, freedom, sad pity, and lust of power’: Politics and Performance in 1820
Malcolm Chase (University of Leeds)
21 March 2012 


When historians talk about 1820 it is often to discuss the attempts by the new monarch, George IV to divorce his queen, Caroline of Brunswick.  George IV became king on 29 January 1820 after the death of his father George III.  However, due to his father’s lapses into mental illness, he acted as Prince Regent for almost a decade before then.  George IV was not a popular king; leading an extravagant lifestyle; accused of wasteful spending during times of war; and losing public confidence over his divorce attempts.  The Pains and Penalties Bill of 1820 was George’s attempt to dissolve his marriage through claiming Caroline to have committed adultery.  The subsequent trial of the queen was heavily followed in the press with a negative response.  Although the bill narrowly passed the House of Lords it was dropped by government before reaching the Commons.

The politics surrounding this royal scandal were, however, far from the only concern in that year, and it is to a wider appraisal of 1820 that Malcolm Chase looks to in his paper.  1820 was also a year of revolutions and assassinations elsewhere in Europe.  Also, in Britain, a plot to assassinate all of the British cabinet was foiled just in time and the revolutionaries executed later in the year.  In the north, various risings in the textile industry, beginning in the West Riding but spilling over into Scotland and the Barnsley/Huddersfield region, caused much disruption and fuelled fears of a revolution in Britain.

Coronation portrait of George IV (1821) by Thomas Lawrence

One of the outlets for political enactment, as is often the case, was through theatre both official and unofficially conceived.  Take, for instance, an example told by Chase from Stockton-On-Tees where a green bag was hung around the neck of an effigy of the devil and ridden around the town on a donkey.   A mock proclamation was made that the devil was guilty of conspiracy against the Queen and was subsequently burnt on a bonfire.  The green bag was a popular symbol in 1820 for the evidence piled up against Queen Caroline and appeared in many anti-establishment performances across the country.

Theatre plays too performed political satire about the events going on in that year.  Take for example performances of Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus which was used to discuss issues of tyranny and just resistance.  In particular the play allowed actors to highlight issues of liberty; something which people felt was being corroded by government acts against the press.

With the focus on just one year, Chase provides an interesting insight into the use of theatre production for political satire and issues surrounding the politics of Britain and censorship in the early nineteenth century.

To listen to this podcast click here.

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British History in the Long 18th Century
Rethinking the interests of eighteenth-century Britain
Julian Hoppit (University College London)
5 October 2011

Julian Hoppit looks at the current state of research into eighteenth-century Britain.  His assessment is not entirely positive; seeing, for example, that the continued use of ‘class’ as a concept is harmful to our studies.  In the period, Hoppit believes that personal ‘interests’ of British society were talked about rather than class.  Interest groups have, for instance, been neglected by historians.

In the eighteenth century interest groups proliferated spurred on by significant changes that had occurred in parliamentary government since 1688.  These groups were, however, very rarely permanent or general in nature but rather focused on specific interests.  The weakness of historian’s study of the period then, is to look at the distinctive, the particular, and the unique, whilst ignoring the central question of what was common and what was not!

To listen to this podcast click here. 

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Franco-British History
15 December 2011
Jeudi 15 décembre à 18h : Rémy Duthille (Bordeaux 3), « Patriotisme et bienveillance universelle chez les radicaux britanniques, 1776-1789 »

Today on History SPOT a new podcast has been uploaded from the Franco-British history seminar held in the Sorbonne.  This paper was given in french but talks about British radicals in the eighteenth century dealing with issues of patronism, foreign relations and parliamentary debates.  Heres the abstract:


On the eve of the French Revolution, the British “radicals” called for a thorough reform of the Westminster parliament.  They said that they were “patriots” at a time when the neologism “radicalism” had not yet been invented. Figures such as Richard Price, John Cartwright and John Jebb, are now little studied.  Historiography focuses instead on the events of 1790 or on conservatism in the period. But the thesis of Jonathan Israel has now been given renewed vigour, often controversial, and focused on the adjective “radical”. This paper is to reconsider the British reformism of the 1770s and 1780s, in light of recent historiographical debates on the concepts of radicalism and patriotism. Among the issues raised is the use of anachronistic categories, affiliations and traditions related to the term “radical”, and the construction of a patriotic protest against a backdrop of war, introduced since the work of Linda Colley as the crucible of a conservative Britishness.


Click here to access the podcast.

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Franco-British History
8 December 2011
Steven Pincus (Yale University)
Gulliver’s Travels, Political Economy, and Empire: The Reconfiguration of the British Empire in the Age of Walpole

Abstract (taken from the Franco-British History progamme): Why did Jonathan Swift have Lemuel Gulliver condemn modern colonies at the end of Book IV of Gulliver’s travels? Literary critics have affirmed, by and large, that Gulliver’s statements reflect Swift’s profound anti-colonial sentiments. Historians (Wilson, Armitage et. al) by contrast imply that Swift’s utterances could have little to do with empire because there was no debate about empire before the late 1730s. I, argue, by contrast that there was a broad pan-imperial crisis ca. 1715-1725 that involved a profound tripartite debate over imperial political economy among Dissident Whigs, Walpoleian Whigs, and Tories. Swift scholars have misunderstood Swift’s contribution because they have positioned Swift within a narrow Anglo-Irish dispute that could only involve religion and the constitution. Swift, I maintain, disliked modern commercial colonies of the sort advocated by Dissident Whigs. He thought proper, as opposed to modern colonies, should provide precious metals or valuable commodities (sugar, tobacco) to fuel the metropolitan economy. Swift’s disagreement with the Walpoleian Whigs was that they failed to appreciate that Ireland was properly a separate kingdom rather than a colony.

To listen to the podcast click here.

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Archives and Society
Freedom of Information
Ben Worthy (University College London)
4 October 2011

Ben Worthy explains the benefits, limitations and difficulty of the Freedom of Information Act brought in by the Blair administration in 2000.  The act would subsequently become known as one of two acts that Tony Blair would later declare as a mistake during his time in office.  At the time Blair believed that the act would make politics more transparent and help the British people trust politicians and the decisions that they make.  Instead the act proved problematic for politicians as the media took it up as an additional means for finding headlines.  The expenses scandal that began in 2009 came to light as the direct result of a freedom of information request. 

In this paper Worthy provides his listeners a whistle stop tour of the Constitution Unit’s various projects and investigations of the effect of the Act.  Through surveys, interviews, official documents and media information (such as newspapers) the Unit have analysed the expected and unexpected ramifications.  

When Blair and his government brought the act through Parliament their aims and objectives were as follows:


  • To make government more transparent
  • To make government  more accountable
  • To improve decision making
  • To enable the public to better understand decision making processes
  • To engage public participation in politics
  • To endear public trust of the workings of government

Worthy believes that whilst the first two items have been achieved successfully the other four still need more work.    Part of the problem, it would seem is that politicians (including Blair) begin their political career keen on freedom of information – it sounds like a good thing and something that they should be in support of – however, as time goes on they begin to find it annoying and come to believe that it is abused by the media.  Interest in supporting the mechanisms of freedom of information therefore decline.

One of the unexpected ramifications is the ‘chilling effect’: attempts to undermine the act through less keeping of records from meetings and discussions occurring more often away from official ‘recorded’ procedures.  The evidence gathered by the Constitution Unit suggests that this does happen (often at the level of local government) but it is not a large problem.  However, Worthy admits that it is actually quite hard to measure such activity.

The paper ends with a whirlwind tour of alternative freedom of information activities in other countries: Ireland, India, Mexico, Italy, Sweden, and China.  The conclusion there is that each country is different in how it uses freedom of information and that these differences are largely cultural.

To listen to the podcast on History SPOT click here.

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