Wednesday, 6 May 2015

What if Winston Churchill fought the general election of 2015?

The world in which Winston Churchill lived out his political career was very different from that we live in today. He fought his first parliamentary election in 1899, at the close of the Victorian era, and his last in 1959, at the dawn of the space age. There were many changes across that period, of course, but there were also continuities. One of the most significant of these was the importance of public meetings to electioneering. These were often rowdy and sometimes even violent affairs. Politicians were expected to be able to defend themselves against hecklers with a quick wit and to be able to hold their own against noisy barracking. Now, by contrast, the public meeting is all but dead and even a single jibe directed to the Prime Minister by a voter can be headline news. So if Churchill was fighting in this year’s election he might feel that the electorate is rather passive and perhaps even that politicians are getting a surprisingly easy ride.

What, though, if Churchill were to look at what people are saying on Twitter and other social media? He was always fascinated by technology and would certainly take a strong interest in the new methods of campaigning. But he would perhaps not be shocked by the level of vitriol and recrimination that is to be found online. During the period he was politically active, harsh invective was part and parcel of  the electoral process. Indeed, Churchill indulged in it himself, most notoriously in the 1945 election speech in which he alleged that a Labour government, if elected, would have to rely on ‘some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance.’ Contrary to popular belief this remark, however misguided, was not some sort of wild aberration. At this time, comparing one’s opponents to the Nazis was quite a popular habit, engaged in by Labour and Liberal figures as well as by a number of Churchill’s fellow Conservatives. Nonetheless, the level of debate has arguably declined somewhat over the last seventy years, but abusing the enemy is nothing new.

Equally, Churchill might well be appalled by the quality of today’s press, but then again he was not particularly impressed by the activities of the Fourth Estate within his own lifetime either. The attitude of the newspapers played an important part in his 1945 defeat at the polls, and the Daily Mirror famously branded him as a warmonger during the 1951 election campaign. Indeed, we have to remember that of the three elections that Churchill fought as leader of his party, he lost two and narrowly won another. If he struggled then he might well struggle now, especially in an age that has become obsessed with youth and glamour and seems to care little for maturity and experience. Still, he almost always rebounded from setbacks, and Churchill were defeated in 2015 he might still have battled on and emerged as a serious contender in the election of 2020.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

How to write a proposal for a history Ph.D.

Here are what I think are the key ingredients of a successful history Ph.D. proposal:
1. A statement of the topic and why it is important and interesting.
2. A summary of the existing historiography.
3. Some reflection on the deficiencies/limitations of the historiography.
4. A description of the sources that you intend to use, and how they will enable you to overcome those limitations.
This is not a formula that has to be followed rigidly; but the proposal should address in some way all the issues raised by the above.

Incidentally, now is the time of year that you need to start exploring funding opportunities too.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Historians

The self-help guru Stephen R. Covey died in 2012. His best-known book was The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Here is my own stab at advice for historians:

1. Take nothing on authority. Don’t believe what Professor X says just because he or she is a considered a leading specialist on the topic. Work out for yourself if the evidence and argument stack up.

2. Go the extra mile in the search for information. But also know when you have hit diminishing returns.

3. Listen to the evidence. Don’t just cherry-pick the bits that happen to suit your argument – or that fit with established interpretations. Embrace and try to understand the inherent messiness of the historical record.

4. Verify your quotations. Check a) that the person that they are attributed to actually said them, and b) that previous historians have not wrenched them out of context (see above).

5. Pay attention to the seemingly banal. If you neglect the everyday, you won’t be able to understand the exceptional.

6. Consider the form as well as the content of your sources. Ask not only ‘What does this document say?’ but ‘Why and how was it created, and what functions did it serve?’

7. Finally, remember that your mission is to explain. This inevitably involves a measure of simplification. The biggest challenge you face is to do this with integrity.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Churchill's First World War

I pop up a couple of times as a talking head in this drama-documentary about Winston Churchill's experiences during the Great War, which is available on iPlayer for a week. And here's a review of the programme.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

How (and how often) should the Prime Minister speak?

Here's my evidence to the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee on the Powers and Role of the Prime Minister.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

In defence of The Historical Association

This letter was published in The Times today:

As historians from the Higher Education sector, we deplore Michael Gove’s extraordinary and misleading attack on the Historical Association in his recent speech at Brighton College. Mr. Gove suggested that the HA favours a dumbed-down or infantilised version of history teaching in schools. Citing a single sentence in an article by an experienced teacher in the Association’s journal Primary History, he claims that ‘the Historical Association suggest students learn about the early Middle Ages by studying the depiction of King John as a cowardly lion in Disney’s “Robin Hood”.’ In fact, the journal piece is a very thoughtful one which explains how students can be helped to realise that they should not take film depictions of history at face value. Mr. Gove at any rate ignores the important statement that ‘Publication of a contribution in Primary History does not necessarily imply the Historical Association’s approval of the opinions expressed in it.’

Mr. Gove would have us believe that the HA is an ideologically motivated organisation dedicated to the erosion of academic standards. In fact, its 6000 plus members have widely divergent political views but are united by their love of history and their devotion to bringing high quality scholarship to schools and the wider public. The key skill that the study of history teaches is the ability to evaluate evidence. Regrettably, what Mr. Gove has demonstrated in his speech is a remarkable capacity for manipulating and distorting it.

Dr Sophie T. Ambler, King's College London
Dr Sara Barker, University of Exeter
Professor Jonathan Barry, University of Exeter
Professor Eugenio F. Biagini, University of Cambridge
Dr Adrian Bingham, University of Sheffield
Dr Helen Birkett, University of Exeter
Professor Lawrence Black, University of York
Dr Elizabeth Boyle, University of Cambridge
Professor Kathleen Burk, Professor Emerita of Modern and Contemporary History, University College London
Dr John-Henry Clay, Durham University
Dr Timothy Cooper, University of Exeter
Dr Pat Cullum, , University of Huddersfield
Professor Martin Daunton, University of Cambridge
Dr Simon Ditchfield, University of York,
Kenneth F. Duggan, Doctoral Student, King's College London
Dr Ann-Marie Einhaus, Northumbria University
Dr Steven Gunn, Merton College, Oxford
Professor Sarah Hamilton, University of Exeter
Dr Freyja Cox Jensen, University of Exeter
Dr Helen Foxhall Forbes, University of Exeter
Dr Felicity Heal, Emeritus Fellow, Jesus College, Oxford.
Professor David Hendy, University of Sussex.
Dr Clive Holmes, Emeritus Fellow and Lecturer in History at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford
Dr Matt Houlbrook, Magdalen College, Oxford
Dr Bronach Kane, Bath Spa University
Professor Evan Mawdsley, Senior Professorial Research Fellow, University of Glasgow
Dr Helen McCarthy, Queen Mary University of London
Dr George Molyneaux, All Souls College, Oxford
Dr Staffan Müller-Wille, University of Exeter
Jamie Page, PhD student, St Andrews Institute of Mediaeval Studies
Dr Hugh Pemberton
Senior Lecturer in Modern British History
University of Bristol
Dr Catriona Pennell, University of Exeter
Dr Tim Rees, University of Exeter
Dr Matthias Reiss, University of Exeter
Dr Catherine Rider, University of Exeter
Dr Laura Sangha, University of Exeter
Dr Levi Roach, University of Exeter
Dr Mark Roodhouse, University of York.
Professor John Shepherd, University of Huddersfield
Dr Nicholas Terry, University of Exeter
Dr. David Thackeray, University of Exeter
Professor Patricia M. Thane, Institute for Contemporary British History, Kings College, London
Professor Andrew Thorpe, University of Exeter
Dr. Hereward Tilton, University of Exeter
Dr Daniel Todman, Queen Mary University of London
Laura Tompkins, PhD Candidate, University of St Andrews
Professor Richard Toye, University of Exeter
Professor Paul Ward, University of Huddersfield
Dr Cordelia Warr, University of Manchester
Tosh Warwick, PhD candidate, University of Huddersfield
Professor Jane Whittle, University of Exeter
Dr Alun Withey, University of Exeter
Professor Matthew Worley, University of Reading
Professor Chris Wrigley, Professor Emeritus, Nottingham University

The following also wish to be associated with the letter:

Dr KH Adler, Department of History, University of Nottingham
Dr. Sascha Auerbach, Department of History, University of Nottingham
Ann Garfield, PhD Student, University of Nottingham
Dr Robert Alexander Hearn, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Universita degli Studi di Genova, and  formerly University of Nottingham
Professor Michael Jones, Correspondant de l'Institut, Emeritus Professor of Medieval French History,
University of Nottingham
Dr Conor Kostick, Advanced Research Fellow, University of Nottingham.
Dr Joe Merton, Teaching Associate, University of Nottingham
Matt Phillips, PhD student, University of Nottingham
Laura Sumner, PhD student, University of Nottingham
Dr. Claire Taylor, Associate Professor in History, University of Nottingham.
Professor John W. Young, Professor of International History, University of Nottingham