The EU scapegoat – and the rise of nasty politics in British history (again)

On social media there has been much said about how Brexit will make Britain ‘Great’ again, giving us the power back to make our own laws and control our own borders.  This is a particularly short-sighted view of British history that looks no earlier than World War II, usually while mis-quoting Churchill.  The idea of a ‘Great’ Britain has much deeper roots in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a time when it was thought acceptable to grab and colonise other people’s lands and assert our superiority over different races, by force if necessary.   Now the troops of empire have marched into history, the idea of Britain has become a vacant lot for parking UKIP red buses emblazoned with lies.

William Holman Hunt, The Scapegoat (1854-56)

More worrying still has been the massive scapegoating of immigrants by pro-Brexit campaigners.  A very narrow political elite has succeeded in persuading working class voters that the austerity measures that have hit them the hardest are caused by immigration – rather than their own bad and divisive policies.  We have a Tory government intent on monetising everything from health care to education.  Their draconian cutbacks have driven the disabled to despair and the hungry to food banks (latest count: 1 million users).  History tells us that scapegoating and then persecuting minorities is a tactic used in conditions of economic crisis to enhance the power of an elite for their own political ends.  Whether those subjected to persecution are Catholics, Irish, Jews or homosexuals, from the seventeenth century to the present day, the history of the British Isles is littered with sad episodes of nastiness, much as we would prefer to see ourselves as a tolerant nation.   Scapegoating ought to alert us to the fact that fascism is on the rise, in its many ugly forms.

Gertrude Bell and the ‘Woman Question’

Click here to listen to Helen Berry’s ‘Insights’ public lecture at Newcastle University (February 2016) on ‘Gertrude Bell and the ‘Woman Question’, including fascinating examples of photography from the Gertrude Bell Archive.

This lecture was in association with ‘The Extraordinary Gertrude Bell’, a blockbuster exhibition at the Great North Museum, Newcastle Upon Tyne (January-May 2016).


The World in a Grain of Sand – Or, How to Make Meaning From Big Data

I’ve witnessed and taken part in many debates recently about the future of the Arts and Humanities. In a world where finances are tight and there’s a drive to do better with less, while trying to’measure’ the difference that education makes, investing in subjects like music, literature, history, classics and art is made to seem like an indulgence.  Meanwhile we are producing ever-more complex information systems for producing ‘big data’ – generating statistics about human activity on a global scale.  For example, the effect we are having as a species upon the planet is now measurable.  We can measure the exponential growth of geoengineering, the presence of radioactive isotopes and carbon particles in the atmosphere, increasing ocean acidity and ice cap melt, or even in the number of McDonalds restaurants, spreading virally across the globe.  Big data tells us we could be entering the Anthropocene – a new historical-geological epoch, and that as never before we need to get wise and organise to live sustainably and thrive in the twenty-first century. But what will motivate us to lobby for political change, as well as adapt our own behaviour?  Big data can make us feel powerless and very insignificant in the face of monumental challenges.  This needn’t be the case. We have to find ways to engage people in co-creating a new and better future, and in this endeavour the arts and humanities have a very special, indeed critical, role to play.  It is partly a question of scale (the particular and specific over the vast and impersonal), partly about the humanitarian values that can and should underpin creativity, and partly about using powerful media to communicate ideas and narratives, while giving people space to draw their own conclusions.  One recent example is the 2015 migrant crisis in Europe.  Overwhelming statistics alone were not enough to engage citizens in lobbying for political action to alleviate the humanitarian crisis that unfolded on our doorstep. It took a photograph to bring this back to a scale we could understand – the horrific sight of the body of a single child, Aylan Al-Kurdi, being carried from the sea, to change public opinion. There are still desperate scenes at European checkpoints, but the cheap rhetoric of  scapegoating ‘economic migrants’ no longer stands.

At the recent launch of the Newcastle University Humanities Research Institute, historian David Armitage spoke about the need for deep-time perspectives in order to understand present conditions, and develop future solutions. His book ‘The History Manifesto’ has been misinterpreted as a call for ‘big history’ to supercede microhistory – but my reading is that, like Willliam Blake, Armitage believes it’s possible to see the world in a grain of sand. My view is that the microcosm is not only valid – it’s essential to our ability to grasp and engage with the macrocosm.  We need the arts and humanities more than ever.



What were you doing while history was being made?

Today feels historic.  It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon.  I live in a small town.  I did the usual Saturday things and walked the dog.  But today the Labour Party elected its most left wing leader for over two decades.  On Twitter, Gerry Adams and the Morning Star expressed their joy.  I exchanged quick texts with a politically engaged friend from student days – private thoughts about what it all meant.  We agreed it was time to step up, to say where we stood on all this.  I am fed up with the impoverishment of every realm of human life being reduced to a series of targets.  I am fed up with education being diminished by crude utilitarian measures.  I am shocked that even my fairly centre-left Saturday broadsheet thinks it’s ok to publish pretentious food recipes next to pictures of Syrian refugees.  I read that Richard Murphy, architect of ‘Corbynomics’, is a Norfolk accountant who also likes to walk his dog (for this read: hick from the sticks- what does he know?).  This could be another ‘where were you on 9/11?’ moment – in the sense that it’s a fixed point for historical and personal memories to be dovetailed in time – that’s the hope. Or it could just be another forgotten Saturday.  Only history will decide.

(Photo of JC courtesy of Nigel Thornton, 2015)

Historian and Writer