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European Crises

3 March 2014

Just over 75 years ago the British press was preoccupied by a European crisis.

The crisis had begun when Adolf Hitler seized a German speaking part of Czechoslovakia called the Sudetenland. It would end with a short-lived agreement between Hitler and the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. This promised the end of further expansion in return for continued control over those territories already under Nazi control. It remains a defining moment of interwar political history.

The Munich Agreement – alongside Chamberlain’s infamous claim to have secured ‘peace for our time’ – is now remembered as the high point of appeasement. Read more…


Intolerant Bestseller

9 January 2014

Digital editions of Mein Kampf have apparently become a surprise hit over the past months.

Guardian Books has today picked up on a blog by an American author detailing the growth in e-book sales of Hitler’s personal manifesto since it was first made available in 2008. There are currently 100 versions of the text available in various formats with 100,000s of downloads.

This is not necessarily evidence that iPads have allowed twenty first century consumers to indulge in closet Nazism.

In March 1939 English language translations of Mein Kampf were on sale in Britain and the USA in both abridged and unabridged forms. The interest in the ideas included was so marked that the text became a British bestseller.

Exact sales estimates range from 5,738 to over 100,000. By the 4 May 1939 Hitler had reached the top of The Bookseller journal’s bestselling author’s list (see Valerie Holman, Print for Victory: Book Publishing in England, 1939-45 (London, 2008), pp. 252-4).

This interest continued beyond the outbreak of war on 3 September 1939. In fact, in March 1940, it was found that Mein Kampf was the most borrowed item in nearly all British libraries.

The reason?

The social research organisation Mass Observation believed that the text’s popularity was due to an increased interest in political issues and current affairs (File Report 46, ‘Book Reading in Wartime’, 1940).

Perhaps the more recent surge in interest has a similar root – an attempt to understand some of the Twentieth Century’s least explicable events by analysing the ideas that underpinned them.

Or perhaps I’m too optimistic.

Return to Socialism?

25 September 2013

Ed Miliband’s address to the Labour Party Conference on 24 September 2013  has caused quite a stir. Interviewed in the 8:10 slot on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the day after his speech, Miliband faced a number of questions about the extent to which his speech signalled a return to a ‘collectivist’ past. He was even asked to define what ‘Miliband-ism’ was.

One of the most striking aspects of this coverage is the extent to which commentators have been drawn to the word ‘socialism’. Another, is the extent to which Labour spokespeople have refused to be drawn on this term. Miliband was asked whether it was fair to describe him as ‘red Ed’. His response was to emphasise that he was taking a common sense approach. Ed Balls had adopted a similar tactic in an interview with Evan Davies on the 24 September. So had Douglas Alexander in an interview with Eddie Mair immediately after Miliband’s address.

The newspapers have adopted similar language to the BBC. The Daily Mail have criticised a ‘1970s-style plan’. The Telegraph have repeated the s-word. Others have labelled his plans as ‘anti-capitalist’. But how far is this a return to the past?

The nature of ‘socialism’ – particularly in a British sense – has always been contentious. But it is possible to get a sense of how important a concept it has been to political debate. A rough way of doing this is to simply count the number of times that the word is used in political reporting.

I’ve just conducted a basic search of the word using the Times Digital Archive. The results show how many times ‘socialism’ appeared in ‘news’ and ‘editorial’ categories within a single year. Repeating this search at 10-year intervals, it is possible to build a very rough picture of shifting trends. The results are as follows:

1903 – 102 articles            1953 – 117 articles          2003 – 85 articles
1913 – 100 articles            1963 – 204 articles
1923 – 269 articles            1973 – 249 articles
1933 – 294 articles            1983 – 279 articles
1943 – 65 articles              1993 – 157 articles

The choice of the ’03 intervals reflects the fact that the speech was delivered in 2013. This has perhaps skewed the results as it misses out the 1945 Labour government – which was elected on a manifesto promising to recreate Britain as a ‘Socialist Commonwealth’.

That said, an interesting picture does emerge, with the frequency of usage notably high in 1933 (a period of economic and political instability) and 1983 (an election year that saw Margaret Thatcher pitted against a left-leaning Labour opposition). The small number of results in 2003 is also to be expected (Tony Blair’s New Labour placed an emphasis on the ‘New’).

How far Miliband’s speech will change the picture in 2013 remains to be seen.

Policy Communication Going Backwards

26 July 2013

A new Whitehall style guide has been gaining attention this week for outlawing buzzwords. The thirteen page document published on the website includes a list of outlawed words and phrases including ‘deliver’, ‘incentivise’, ‘leverage’, ‘slimming down’ and ‘going forwards’.

This is not the first time in recent weeks that the government machine has attempted to ‘get better in the way [that it] presents things’. Michael Gove set the trend in motion when he ‘banned jargon’ in the Department for Education on 30 June and urged civil servants to read George Orwell as an example of best practice.

Such actions tell us something very interesting about the nature of contemporary politics. But the situation wasn’t much better in Orwell’s day.

In 1947, as Orwell continued to grapple with the seminal novel 1984, the British government published an experimental document called the Economic Survey. This was an attempt to explain the economic situation to the public and is referred to in the previous post. It was also the focus of an investigation carried out by the social research group Mass Observation (MO).

The short report created by MO was called The Language of Leadership and dealt with the Economic Survey as an example of a broader trend. It argued that ordinary people were effectively being excluded from participation by the use of technical language. This caused some upset within government and even led to questions being asked in parliament.

But the most interesting thing about The Language of Leadership is how it compares to today’s list of proscribed words.

Among the problematic word identified in 1947 were ‘objectives’, ‘conception’ and or ’embody’. These were particularly difficult in combination – with the phrase ‘the OBJECTVES of this Paper EMBODY the Government’s determination to put first things first’ apparently causing ‘semi-paralysis’ (pp.2-3).

When this is compared with today’s list, it is clear that twenty-first century politics has become much more business-like.  It might also suggest that the primary audience has changed – with Whitehall talking to itself rather than attempting to explain policies to the public. Perhaps that’s why Mr Gove’s golden rules included ‘Would your mum understand that word, phrase or sentence? Would mine?’ at number 5.

Harold Wilson and the Difficulties of Democratic Planning

10 July 2013

This post relates to a paper I gave at a conference commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Harold Wilson’s ‘White Heat’ speech. Picked up by the Daily Telegraph, the following also appears on the University of Nottingham’s Ballots and Bullets blog as part of a series based on the conference papers (this also includes a free pdf of Wilson’s speech).


Wilson’s ‘White Heat’ speech encapsulated the duality of his political identity. It was, as other posts  in this white heat series have pointed out, an explicitly rational call for ‘revolutionary’ change in policy making and a very clear piece of political positioning. The speech’s carefully constructed narrative drew upon both of these aspects to consciously embrace what Wilson referred to as ‘new thinking’. This enabled him to claim that only the Labour Party could create a ‘New Britain’.

This confidence eventually gave way to a feeling of disillusion. Confronted with the challenges of office, Wilson’s government lacked the long term vision it had promised the electorate. This drew contemporary criticism and has left a contested historical legacy. Questions continue to be asked about the importance Wilson attributed to the renewal  of British industry and the extent to which his invocation of ‘White Heat’ was underpinned by any real strategic vision. One issue that has tended to be overlooked, however, is the extent to which his ‘new thinking’ drew upon past experience.

Wilson’s promise of a ‘scientific and technological revolution’ was linked to a broader policy that would promote a consciously ‘democratic’ form of economic planning  (which he claimed was very different from the state-controlled version made famous in the USSR). This meant setting down a number of targets for growth, but would involve collaboration with industry and was seen to require ‘active co-operation, involvement and understanding’ on behalf of the general public. This faith in collaboration later informed  the way that Wilson’s government approached its 1965 National Plan. Not only was this based on targets set by private industry, but it was followed up by a concerted publicity campaign to ensure that its recommendations were widely shared.

These activities echoed similar efforts undertaken by the 1945-51 Labour government. They too argued that  a national plan was necessary to ensure that the economy grew in a rational way. They also stressed that this need not mean a reliance on state controls.. Their approach was set out clearly in the Economic Survey for 1947. This document described the economic position facing Britain, predicted what would happen next, and attempted to set out a strategy for the future. But it remained adamant that ‘Everything will depend upon the willing co-operation and determined efforts of all sections of the population’ and was followed by a serious effort to use publicity as a tool that could avoid the need for more direct controls over the public.

It should not be seen as a co-incidence that Wilson began his political career during this earlier period (he was first elected in 1945 and was appointed President of the Board of Trade in 1947). In fact, as I’ve shown in this forthcoming article, Wilson’s experience of government shaped his political outlook and informed his contributions to Labour Party policy-making during the 1950s. However, despite gaining a reputation for pragmatism, he does not appear to have learnt from this time in office.

This is particularly important because his later attempts to foster active public co-operation with economic policy led to a peculiar type of participation. Despite bolder hopes, only 220,000 copies of the National Plan’s ‘popular’ edition were sold and there was very little attempt from the government to measure the extent to which its message had been heard (a non-governmental investigation estimated that only one in ten could correctly identify its aim). This was remarkably similar to the situation in 1947. Indeed, The Economic Survey had been similarly blighted by low sales, struggled to translate its message, and was eventually overshadowed by a pessimistic government advertising campaign which called on people to ‘Work or Want’ (which I’ve commented on in a previous post).

This post has tried to provide an additional angle from which to assess Wilson’s contribution to twentieth century Britain. But it might also offer something to contemporary debates about public engagement with matters of economic policy. Indeed, whilst the optimism surrounding Wilson’s ‘White Heat’ suggests that it is possible to create a connection, the need for active collaboration is as important today as it was in 1965. The economic significance of confidence should not be understated, but then nor should the need to balance expectations and to ensure a real process of communication.

William Hague, Mau Mau, and the History of Historical Apologies

8 June 2013

This week saw William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, offer a partial apology for the actions of the colonial administration in Kenya during the 1950s. His speech to the House of Commons recalled some difficult truths surrounding Britain’s attempt to supress the Kikuyu – ‘Mau Mau’ – insurgency. It stressed that:

We understand the pain and the grief felt by those who were involved in the events of emergency in Kenya. The British government recognises that Kenyans were subjected to torture and other forms of ill-treatment at the hands of the colonial administration … The British government sincerely regrets that these abuses took place and that they marred Kenya’s progress to independence. Torture and ill-treatment are abhorrent violations of human dignity which we unreservedly condemn.

The latest in a long line of revelations about the actions of Britain’s colonial state, not to mention later attempts to bury this history, this speech has caused some notable debate. Some commentators have stressed that Britain was not the only perpetrator in this particularly brutal conflict (though it must be noted that some of those who will now receive compensation only ever had unproven links to the Mau Mau). Others have simply questioned the rationale of such apologies.

There are certainly lots of unanswered questions. Hague, for example, remains adamant that his offer of compensation does not set a precedent for other former territories. Moreover, the government remains less than candid about an administrative process that resulted in hundreds of files relating to the crisis being misplaced for five decades (apparently mislabelled to suggest they belonged to a non-governmental organisation, they remained uncatalogued in a secure secret facility rather than being passed to the Public Records Office). Then there are the practical questions about what form the British-funded memorial will take.

From a more historical perspective, however, some of the most interesting questions relate to the very concept of a historical apology. This is not just a question of whether or not such questions are valid. But also one that asks when this trend began, and by extension, where it might end.

Whilst there are no easy answers, a literature search does throw up a few interesting sources to consider this question. Some – like this American-produced list of historical apologies – are fairly idiosyncratic. Others take a much more academic approach (with a good overview of the literature available in this article by Canadian political psychologists). One thing that emerges clearly, however, is that this seems to be very much a post-Second World War trend. It is also one in which Britain has had a leading role.

This suggests that the concept of historical apologies might be influenced by attempts to promote a framework for responsible governance through bodies like the United Nations, or that it is perhaps linked to a growth of government (and concurrent sense of democratic responsibility). More cynically, perhaps, they might be seen as part of a broader effort to come to terms with a changed world and find a new role. Or they could even be seen as a ‘pre-emtive strike‘ removing the possibility for future conflict.

As for what happens next, it’s worth remembering that the most successful apologies are those that redress an accepted injustice and make both sides feel better. Whether Hague’s partial redress fits this bill remains to be seen.

Opposition to Equal Marriage – Sound familiar?

21 May 2013

The coalition’s Equal Marriage Bill is expected to receive its final reading in the Commons today after weathering the vocal resistance of some Conservative backbenchers. The debate saw over 100 Conservative Members noting their objections, but a proposal that would have delayed the law was defeated by 375 votes to 70.

These debates come after a difficult week for the Conservative Party and are symbolic of a rift between those in office and those at the grassroots. Chief amongst the activists complaints is that the government shouldn’t be ‘wasting’ time debating ‘gay marriage’ when they could be doing something useful, like legislating for economic growth.

Its a familiar argument.

Almost fifty years’ ago, in 1967, the second Wilson government was facing similar criticism for the support it had given to a private member’s bill which removed the illegal status of homosexual acts (put forward by Labour MP Leo Abse and supported by the Home Secretary, this was a similar technique as the Tories have adopted to debate an in-out EU referendum).

The then leader of the House of Commons, Richard Crossman, noted that the move:

‘May well be twenty years ahead of public opinion; certainly working class people in the North jeer at their Member … and ask them why they’re looking after the buggers in Westminster instead of looking after the unemployed at home’ (R.H.S Crossman, Diaries of A Cabinet Minister, vol ii (London 1976), p. 407, 3 Jul 1967)

In fairness, Wilson’s governments, which were first elected on a radical pledge to recreate Britain in the White Heat of scientific planning, had also sought to promote economic growth. But they found it harder to legislate for the economy than they did to enact a lasting social change.

I’m sure that there’s a lesson for the current government in there somewhere.