Petitioning the Government – Then and Now

For hundreds of years, the petition has given British citizens a voice in Parliament. No matter your job, class, religion, age or gender, anyone who can sign their name can let the government know what’s bothering them.

Whilst petitions used to be physical documents, we can now petition the government online through the official parliamentary petitions website. If any petition gains 10,000 signatures, the government promises to respond. “What a blessing!” I hear you cry; “Why, we shall surely be in Utopia this time next Tuesday!”


SheepThe government’s online petition website is both a blessing and a curse. On the plus side we can easily let the government know whatever is bothering us. On the downside, we can easily let the government know whatever is bothering us:

Bevan's internetbasketballBelow are some of my favourites, most of which I found by searching the word “disgrace”. To set them in their proper context I’ve thrown in some of the great petitioning campaigns from British history, just so we can see how far we’ve come. Petitions, for instance, were instrumental in the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. By 1792, the anti-slavery campaign had managed to gather 390,000 signatures in over 500 petitions calling for the abolition of the slave trade. Perhaps you remember the scene in Amazing Grace where William Wilberforce lays down a monster petition in parliament?

amazing-grace-still-21200 years after Parliament carried out the people’s wishes and put an end to the transatlantic slave trade, the British government disgracefully rejected a call to “Unban Jin from SmashUK“:

Jin SmashFrom what I can gather, SmashUK is the UK Smash Bros championship. We do not know who Jin is or what he/she did to get themselves banned, but David Cameron will apparently not be caving in to public pressure to resolve the situation. The SmashUK community have made much use of the petitions website, but their impassioned calls for the government to “Bring Rayman into Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and Nintendo 3DS” were also rejected:

Smash brosOne of the greatest petitioning campaigns of the nineteenth century was organized by the Chartists, the working class political reform movement who called for votes for every man over 21, the secret ballot, and the abolition of property qualifications for MPs. In 1848, the Chartists assembled for a mass demonstration on Kennington Common and presented a petition to parliament which gathered at least 1.9million signatures:


Chartists assembled on Kennington Common, 1848

Increasing suffrage, large-scale political reform – quite an important and noble cause. But what’s more important in this day and age is remembering the true meaning of Christmas: Glenn Hoddle.

Glenn hoddleSure, we have the right to vote, but do we have the right to enjoy little toys with our Frosties? LIKE HELL WE DO:

Cereal toysSearching “bring back” on the petitions website leads to a treasure trove of nostalgic fury. Mind you, you first have to get past the 300 or so petitions demanding that we bring back national service, corporal punishment and the death penalty:

capital punishment

Now there’s a ‘capital offense’ if ever I saw one…

After these come a slaver of gluttons (google it) demanding that the government intervenes to bring back their favourite foods. First up it’s the McDonald’s big breakfast, disgracefully cancelled without warning:

McdonaldsNext, KFC Hotrods, because they’re in the national interest:

KFCThird, the Jamie Oliver haters who just want their precious Turkey Twizzlers

Turkey Twizzlers

So glad I clicked on ‘more details’

…or maybe Turkey Twizzlers with added nutrition:

Turkey Twizzlers 2Perhaps the image of Turkey Twizzlers dripping with fat has disgusted you so much that wish the government could actually intervene to stop us eating such filth? Here, this petition should have you covered:

consumptionWording a petition is always pretty tricky. If you are going to petition the government, I advise making it clear what you actually want:

TreasonAfter a couple of hours scouring the petitions website, things began to get a little weird. There were the religious nutjobs…

Good word…followed by the sci-fi geeks…

Moon…and lastly the downright surreal:

GolemAfter all this, some of you may be thinking that the government petitions website it pretty damn useless. Maybe you even think it should be abolished? Well funnily enough…

PetitionsThe government wanted to listen to this petition, but feared opening up some sort of cosmic rift in the ensuing paradox.

I could go on. I really could. There are so many, and they’re all so stupid. But why not visit the website and find your own favourites? But let’s take a moment to be thankful that we have both the right and the opportunity to be this stupid. We can bother the government with whatever little annoyance is preying on our mind, and the advent of the digital age has allowed the government to ignore our petitions in a whole new online world.

Let’s finish with this:

Ed Balls


Pancake deaths and injuries in the eighteenth century

Happy Shrove Tuesday everyone! I wish you all a merry evening of batter-whipping, syrup-dripping, pancake-flipping revelry! But before the festivities commence, let us take a moment to commemorate those lives lost and injuries sustained in the eighteenth century due to improper use of pancakes.

First up, this domestic disagreement from the London Evening Post, January 25th 1766:


“…and taking up one of the pancakes, that were hissing hot, she slapp’d it full in his face, which hit him so exactly as to cover it, and stick on it like a mask. Mr Slender roared loudly, and said his eyes were burnt out. I could not help bursting into a loud laughter…”

Secondly, the tragic case of two young German ladies reported by the Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, August 10th 1764:


“Two young lasses of this city having found in the absence of their parents, a certain white powder, which they took for flour, made some pancakes of it, and eat a pretty large quantity; but unfortunately this powder was poison. One of the girls is already dead, and it is thought impossible for the other to recover”

Thirdly, a woman struck down by epilepsy in the midst of making pancakes, reported in the Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, November 1, 1764. There was no improper use of pancakes in this case, it’s simply the sad story of a lost life. We will remember her:


“Last Thursday a woman, that lived next door to the Dolphin and Acorn at Hackney, fell down in an apolectic fit as she was frying pancakes, and died in a short time”

Next, the London Evening Post from March 27th 1773 shows how a chilling case of domestic abuse eventually culminates in murder by pancakes:


“Wednesday last Matthew Hutton, an ostler in this city was committed to the gaol of this city for the murder of his wife; it appeared upon examination before the coroner, that on Friday last he came home and ordered his wife to get some pancakes, which she did, and when she had fryed one, he took it to his plate, and then sent her out for some beer, during which time it is supposed he put some arsenik into the batter, as he eat no more, and she dies the next morning at eight o’clock in great agonies . . . he endeavoured to poison her about a month ago in coffee, and never came home till the above evening for a long time past, keeping company with another woman. The remainder of the batter is taken care of, and is intended to be analyzed”

And lastly, the tragic case of a Cork man who never got to enjoy the pancakes he was so looking forward to (from the Public Advertiser, March 17th 1767):


“Monday last, at Mallow Fair, a Man choaked himself by Excess of Eating. He had laid a Bet with his Companion that he would eat three Pennyworth of new Bread and two Pounds of Cheese, while the other could sup two Quarts of Ale with a Table Spoon; and while the Deceased was taking the last Bit, he declared he had never before got such a delicious Feast of the Kind, but he was afraid it would spoil his Meal on Pancakes the next Day.”

Stay safe in the kitchen tonight people. Enjoy your pancakes, and remember those we’ve lost.

Jeremy Corbyn and eighteenth-century patriotism

This morning most of us can barely move for newspaper headlines slamming Jeremy Corbyn for staying silent during the national anthemn at the Battle of Britain memorial service yesterday. Of course it makes sense that Corbyn, a non-religious republican, might not want to sing something which goes completely against his convictions. Besides, if he had sung along he’d simply be called a hypocrite, a la privy council seat earlier this week.


Reactions to Corbyn were mixed, ranging from thoughtful musings on his pacifism and republicanism to “they should take him out and shoot him” (thank you once again, Daily Mail). Most, however, called his patriotism into question. How can he love our country if he refuses to sing our national anthem and support our queen? “Such behaviour,” the Express wrote, “cannot be tolerated by any honourable Briton”.

Perhaps we should take a little look at the history of British patriotism. What exactly did the term denote in former times?

The funny thing is that a lot of people in the eighteenth century would not see anti-royalist feelings as inconsistent with patriotism; indeed, quite the reverse. Historically patriotism did not mean adoration of the monarchy, the government, or even the British nation as a concept. To be a patriot was to support the people, and in particular those who had little or no power themselves. In the words of the historian John Dinwiddy,

“Eighteenth-century Patriotism implied in a more general way devotion to the welfare of the nation as a whole, the people at large, as distinct from devotion to the interests of the ruling few. It also involved a preoccupation with the dangers of corruption and arbitrary power”.(1)

Understandably, this would very often clash with the will of the monarch. William Pitt the Elder was known as ‘the Great Commoner’ and ‘the Patriot Minister’ because of his opposition to the policies of George II and the Prime Minister Robert Walpole. When Pitt accepted a title for his wife and a £3,000 annuity from George III to resign from government, most of the public were outraged. The patriot minister had abandoned the cause of the people, and the Great Commoner had become the Earl of Chatham.(2)

“His cherished title thus he gave, and of the Patriot made a Slave” – satire on Pitt (1766), © The Trustees of the British Museum

John Wilkes was yet another eighteenth-century patriot enemy of the monarch.Wilkes opposed the heavier involvement of George III in government, and despised the King’s tutor-turned-Prime Minister Lord Bute. It was precisely Wilkes’ fervent opposition to the monarch and the government which made Wilkes such a patriot in the eyes of the people:

“John Wilkes was hailed as ‘the Father of his Country; the English David; the Beloved Patriot; the Martyr of Liberty’ for championing individual Britons’ political and legal rights against the encroachments of the state”. (3)

As the editor for the radical newspaper The North Briton, Wilkes was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London for seditious libel after his paper attacked the King’s speech opening parliament in 1763. Wilkes effectively accused the King of corruption, lamenting that the crown had ‘sunk even to prostitution’.

But Wilkes was hailed by the common people as a patriot, standing against corruption and arbitrary power even whilst outrageously insulting the monarch. A print from 1771 shows him receiving petitions of support in the Tower of London (even though he wasn’t in the tower at this particular point).

© The Trustees of the British Museum

The lines of verse beneath the print display the contemporary definition of patriotism:

“Thus Ancient Britons, gen’rous, bold & free,
Untaught at Court to bend the supple Knee,
Corruption’s Shrine with honest Pride disdain
And only bow to Freedom’s Patriot Train.”

Eighteenth-century British patriots did not sycophantically kow tow to a monarch; they would support the constitutional monarchy, but oppose attempts to enforce royal prerogative. Above all else, patriotism as an ideal supported the people.

When the American Revolutionaries styled themselves ‘The Patriots’ in the 1770s, there is no doubt that they were referring to this form of patriotism. They did not mean patriotism in the modern, nationalist sense, but instead the patriotism of British citizens seeking to assert their rights and liberties against arbitrary power.(4)

Jeremy Corbyn’s patriotism, it seems, fits much more comfortably into the historical definition of the word. Even his opponents would agree that Corbyn has struck a chord with a large section of society who oppose austerity. His supporters view him as a political leader who is championing their cause against the systematic extension of poverty through cuts, low wages and rising house prices. In this sense then he is a patriot in the historical sense of the term, a politician on the side of the ordinary, downtrodden people.  Today, however, we have a much greater tendency to wrap our ideas of patriotism inside symbols and figureheads, and overlook the fact that the nation is the people.


  1. John Dinwiddy, ‘England’, in Otto Dann and John Dinwiddy (eds.),
    Nationalism in the Age of the French Revolution, (London, 1988), p.55
  2. Hannah Barker, Newspapers, Politics and English Society 1695-1855, (London, 2000), p.148
  3. Linda Colley, ‘Radical patriotism in eighteenth century England’, in Raphael Samuel (ed.) Patriotism: the Making and Unmaking of British National Identity, volume 1: History and Politics, (London, 1989), p.170. Of course, this does lead to interesting questions about state power and patriotism. It should be remembered, however, that the majority of people in the eighteenth century were disenfranchised, and therefore the state did not embody the democratic power of the people.
  4. Jack P. Greene, ‘Identity and Independence’ in Jack P. Greene & J. R. Pole (eds), A Companion to the American Revolution, (Oxford, 2000), pp.230-234

The Liberty Tree Protests and the Scots

Today marks the 250th anniversary of the Liberty Tree protests in Boston. On August 14th 1765, a crowd of New England colonists expressed their opposition to the Stamp Act by hanging an effigy of Andrew Oliver, an official overseeing the collection of stamp duty, from a large Elm tree on Orange Street. Historians have since marked this occasion as the beginning of the popular colonial opposition movement which ten years later broke out in Revolution.

But Oliver was not the only effigy hanged that day. Alongside the stamp officer, the Bostonians suspended a large Jack Boot with the head of a demon poking from the top. The boot and demon were a reference to John Stuart, Earl of Bute, an unpopular former Prime Minister who was widely attacked as the mastermind of the Stamp Act.

The Jack Boot Exalted - attack on Bute and the Scots in a 1763 English print © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Jack Boot Exalted – attack on Bute and the Scots in a 1763 English print © The Trustees of the British Museum

American opposition to Bute increased over the next few years, and almost always focused on his nationality. Bute was a Scot, which to both American and English radicals was simply unforgivable. Scots were associated with Jacobitism, support for the arbitrary power of the Stuart monarchy, and Catholicism. Only twenty years before the Liberty Tree protests the Scots had attempted to restore Bonnie Prince Charlie to the throne in the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, a fact which Americans and the English alike were not soon to forget. In their eyes Scots were the stalwart enemies of liberty, even now attempting to subjugate the citizens of the British Empire with unjust taxation.

Rage against the Stamp Act and ensuing measures was consequently poured out against the Scots. Bute was hanged in effigy across America, from New England to South Carolina and beyond. In February 1766, Boston crowds hanged an effigy of Bute dressed in full tartan plaid, calling more attention to his Scottish nationality than before. During the evening celebrations, the Bostonians toasted to ‘A Repeal of the Stamp Act, and a perpetual Itching without the Benefit of Scratching to its Friends’. This was a reference to the notorious ‘Scottish Itch’, the common stereotype being that dirty, lice-ridden Scots were constantly scratching themselves.

Bute, in tartan plaid, and Grenville hanged in effigy below the Devil in Boston, in the Boston Gazette, February 24th 1766, issue 569

Bute, in tartan plaid, and Grenville hanged in effigy below the Devil in Boston, in the Boston Gazette, February 24th 1766, issue 569

Paul Revere, meanwhile, depicted the Stamp Act as a fearsome dragon in a satirical print, but topped the dragon off with a Scots bonnet in reference to Bute and his countrymen. Other Scottish figures circle above the dragon, firing down on the champions of liberty below.

Paul Revere, A view of the year 1765, (Boston, 1765)

Paul Revere, A view of the year 1765, (Boston, 1765)

As abhorrent (and misleading) as American Scotophobia was during this era, it undoubtedly served a useful purpose. Anti-Scottish sentiment was a truly transatlantic force, uniting American Patriots with radicals in England. Both groups opposed the overexertion of ministerial power, and both believed that Scottish influence over the government and the king was responsible for measures such as the Stamp Act, the Townshend Duties and the Intolerable Acts. Scots served as both a common enemy to unite American Patriots with their supporters in England, and as a whipping boy allowing radicals on both sides of the Atlantic to express their opposition to the government without appearing disloyal. Far better to claim that a traditional Scottish enemy was secretly engaging in a fresh Jacobite conspiracy than accuse the King of treason towards the constitution.

An English print blaming the Stamp Act and a succession of other unpopular measures on secret Scottish influence © The Trustees of the British Museum

An English print blaming the Stamp Act and a succession of other unpopular measures on secret Scottish influence © The Trustees of the British Museum

Even long after the outbreak of the Revolution, Americans continued to regard Scots as their peculiar enemies. Revolutionary newspapers levied vehement attacks on Scottish cunning and barbarity in warfare, whilst prominent Scottish figures such as the Earl of Dunmore became objects of particular abhorrence.

In 1783, the Salem Gazette reflected back on America’s ‘great aversion to the Scotch people’ over the past twenty years. The paper spoke of the Scots ‘ferocious and malicious behaviour’ towards the Americans, treating them with ‘insults, inhumanity and more than savage cruelty’.  The article concluded with a recommendation that warning signs be put up on all the shores of America, with a message warning all potential Scottish migrants to stay well away:

The Scottish people is rejected,
The world besides will be accepted.
Jews, Infidels and Hottentots
We welcome here – but not the Scots.

A lesson from history for Simon Danczuk

The Labour MP for Rochdale Simon Danczuk has promised that Jeremy Corbyn will face revolt from party MPs ‘from day one’ in the event of a victory. One of the brilliant/annoying things about studying history is that you see parallels between your era of expertise and the present. Danczuk’s comments put me in mind of the 1768 Middlesex election won by the radical candidate John Wilkes. Loathed by the King and his supporters, Wilkes received an enormous amount of support from the ordinary people. Most of these men, and all of the women, were disenfranchised; they showed their support through popular celebrations, illuminating their windows and crying “Wilkes and Liberty!”

Wilkite printers punished with the pillory. The punishment backfired when crowds celebrated the pilloried men instead of pelting them with abuse © The Trustees of the British Museum

Wilkite printers punished with the pillory. The punishment backfired when crowds turned the pillory into a place of high honour rather than disgrace © The Trustees of the British Museum

Wilkes has been labelled everything from a champion of liberty to a rabble-rousing demagogue by historians. In truth he was all of these things: a notorious libertine and member of the Monks of Medmenham Hellfire Club, a campaigner for individual liberty, the  freedom of the press and the abolition of general warrants, and a bigot who stirred up English anti-Scottish sentiment into a popular rage against Scots. The renowned print-maker William Hogarth attacked Wilkes in a caricature which derided his politics and physical deformities. The squinting Wilkes sits beneath a cap of liberty-cum-chamber pot.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

© The Trustees of the British Museum

But Wilkes was popular. Returning from exile in Paris after being tried for seditious libel and blasphemy, he was elected to parliament in the 1768 general election for the London constituency of Middlesex. Parliament, no friends to Wilkes, expelled him on the grounds that he was an outlaw. They called a by-election for Middlesex, which Wilkes won. They expelled him, called another election, and Wilkes won again. They expelled him, called another election, and guess what? Wilkes won again. This time, Parliament declared his opponent Henry Luttrell the winner, despite Wilkes securing more than 3x the number of votes won by Luttrell. The result was chaos. Petitions in support of Wilkes poured in from across the country,and the Prime Minister, Grafton, was forced to resign in the face of dwindling support in parliament. Wilkes, meanwhile, rose through the ranks of city politics, becoming first Alderman and later Lord Mayor of London.

The message? Even in a society which was only very partially democratic, politicians have a very hard time when they try to overrule democratic processes. The will of the people, especially when it comes to elections, is difficult to argue against. In the end Danczuk might find it easier to oust Corbyn than parliament did to oust Wilkes. Corbyn will need to be re-nominated by MPs in the event of a new Labour leadership election. But perhaps Danczuk should take a lesson from history. Yes, MPs are powerful and important, but are you more important than the people who gave you your power? If we want Corbyn as our leader, can we elect him against your will? JezWeCan.

The growing menace of law-abiders

Today, David Cameron announced plans to crack down on extremism. Many of us were afraid that the conservatives would be too lenient on those who threaten our great nation, especially without the Lib Dems to give them teeth. Thankfully, the Tories are now targeting a growing section of society who have been ignored for far too long: law-abiders.

Cameron is set to tell the national security council later today “For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone.”


“I am deeply sorry for five years of intolerable tolerance”

I for one am deeply troubled by the disturbing rise in law abiding citizens in recent times. There are law-abiders in our schools, secretly grooming our children into becoming law-abiders too. Crime rates have been falling steadily for 20 years, which has unwittingly given law-abiders the opportunity to flourish. Although the police have tried to clamp down on law-abiding, almost 98% of law-abiders have no further action taken against them (these figures are much lower amongst ethnic minorities).

Thankfully, the government has long set as an example of how to act like decent, non law-abiding citizens. Who can forget the glorious days of Thatcherism, where cabinet ministers covered up child abuse scandals and hampered inquests into stadium disasters? Young people who may be tempted towards extremist law-abiding should look to the abundance of  sexual harassment, illegal spying, assault, perverting the course of justice, perjury and fraud, fraud, fraud within our government. With such a shining example at the top of the ladder, it’s hard to imagine why law-abidance is such a growing menace in our society today.

Academics and UKIP – Why we can win every battle but lose the war

If academics really want to combat the rise of UKIP and the extreme right, we have to be prepared to leave our comfort zones. An academic approach simply isn’t enough.

It’s been encouraging to see so many academics campaigning against Britain’s new swing towards the far right in politics. Staff at Sheffield and Birmingham have highlighted the flaws in UKIP’s economic policies, whilst my twitter feed is often awash with academics decrying xenophobia and the stigmatization of immigrants. But is our opposition working?

A couple of days ago I stumbled upon a twitter argument between an academic and a UKIP supporter. The disagreement itself concerned whether BBC was biased towards the left or the right, yada yada yada. The debate is not important here. What caught my eye was the UKIP supporter’s response to some statistics used by the academic to make his argument:

After a couple of thousand retweets by academics Mr. UKIP deleted the tweet, so we’ll keep him anonymous.

My first response was to laugh. Let’s face it, it’s funny, especially to academics. The entire framework of our careers is, for the most part, based around evidence leading to conclusions. Our evidence and statistics are not always perfect, and there are strong voices criticizing the insular nature of academia which sometimes doesn’t allow the buds of new, exciting, challenging knowledge to flower. However, I think a lot of individual academics would at the very least like to think that their views would change according to evidence. It is (or it should be) the bedrock of academia itself.

I was stopped short in my lols by one twitter responder. Whilst I and everyone else retweeted and laughed, Michelle Brook pointed to a deeper issue, one which constantly hangs silently over my head and those of many other academics:

Out of touch? I thought at first. Surely I’m not out of touch. I read newspapers, I watch the news, I’m on twitter, facebook, all those things. I watch the TV debates, hell, I even read the comments beneath daily mail articles sometimes! I know *exactly* how idiotic these right-wing UKIP nutjobs are, they won’t even listen to reasonable argumen-

And that’s where I stopped. Because this is precisely the point at which most academics would stop. When someone simply refuses to listen to our evidence and our reason, we give up. In the words of Mr UKIP’s academic opponent, “There’s nothing more to be said.” What’s the point? we think to ourselves, as visions of a modern-day King Canute feebly commanding the waves of stupidity to turn away rush through our minds.

"Seriously guys, whose idea was this? My sandals are full of STUPID."

“Great, now my sandals are full of STUPID.”

But what if we’re doing it wrong? What if the value we often place on hard evidence and statistics isn’t shared by everyone in our society? What if, as Michelle Brook says, we’re simply out of touch? Don’t get me wrong here, evidence and statistics are damn important, and quite rightly should form the foundation for knowledge. But what we can’t do is just throw information at people and expect them to change their minds, because it simply doesn’t work. We may win the arguments, but we don’t win people.

People base their politics on far more than just statistics and evidence. Our beliefs are formed by our upbringing, our family, our friends, our religion, our geography – the list goes on. Can we really quantify values? But, as academics, we rely on evidence and statistics to change our collective knowledge. The problem is that we rely on this method so much that we try to apply it to political debates and then get frustrated when it doesn’t work.

What we’re asking (or really what we’re demanding) people to do is enter into our world. We’re demanding that they play by our rules, adopt our academic values of evidence and statistics which, lets face it, we don’t always base our political outlooks on either. It would be great if these things did change people’s minds; sometimes they do, but in the instances where they don’t we need new tactics. So, how about we leave our comfort zones? How about we use methods other than stats? We can appeal to values, to real-life stories, to the abstract ideas of right and wrong – things which we sometimes shy away from in academia because we know how troublesome they can be. These probably won’t be enough either. To be honest I don’t really know what the best strategy is, and I really really welcome any suggestions. What I do know is that anyone who has seen the damage extreme right wing politics has done to the world needs to campaign against it.

I really don’t like UKIP. I don’t like the politics of fear. I don’t like a party which pretends to be anti-establishment when it’s actually in the pocket of millionaires. I don’t like anyone who measures a person’s value according to the country of their birth. I don’t like a party which wants to increase the amount we spend on killing foreigners but scrap all foreign aid spent helping them. I don’t like anyone who would stigmatize people with HIV live on television. I don’t like a party full of people who want to leave Africans to “kill themselves off”, call Islam satanic, blame floods on gay marriage, and tell Lenny Henry to “emigrate to a black country”. Perhaps most of all I hate how these horrible things don’t seem to do UKIP any damage – their supporters just seem to revel in scandal, congratulating themselves on being ‘politically incorrect’. That’s why its so important that we find out how to do it right. How do we really change people’s minds?

Empire: Paxman vs. Bhambra

What has the British Empire done to you? This is a question asked by two very different guest speakers at the University of Southampton in the past couple of weeks. The first is the renowned political journalist, TV presenter and beard aficionado Jeremy Paxman. His study of Empire has been chosen for the university’s One book, one Southampton scheme, which aims to engage Southampton local residents with university staff and students on a particular topic.

source: wikimedia commons

The beard did not make an appearance, as it has just landed a spot on Strictly

The second was sociologist, postcolonial theorist and Warwick University Professor Gurminder K. Bhambra, currently visiting fellow at Princeton. Professor Bhambra was invited to give the annual Marshall Lecture, in which she discussed Paxman’s interpretation of the British Empire.

Yes, I actually take photos in lectures.

Yes, I actually take photos in lectures.

At the start of his book Paxman raised the question of what ruling the world did the British people themselves. He then proceeded to ignore this question throughout the rest of the book, but that’s OK because Paxman is totally cool with people who avoid answering questions:

Paxman, a one-nation Tory, has a very one-nation Tory view of Empire as well. Missionaries in Africa really cared about the people they were converting, and though there was violence lots of good things came out of the British Empire as well. His lecture showed paintings of the British chatting with Indians over a relaxing cuppa, or mingling together at a friendly cock-fight.



Bhambra’s analysis of Paxman’s vision of empire was superb. His history, she argued, dwells on all the nice stuff. He rightly decries slavery as ‘one of the most disgraceful episodes of British history’, but diverts immediately to abolitionism. The government, meanwhile, was ‘complacent’ about the slave trade rather than ‘complicit’. In short, Paxman is writing old Whiggish history. It’s the sort of history that emphasizes British progress, British liberty and British exceptionalism. Of course Paxman’s history is not as nauseating or whitewashing as the old Whig historians of the 1920s. H. E. Egerton, for example, wrote about British masters who earned their slaves’ affection and admiration through kind treatment. No, Paxman is clear that the slave trade was truly atrocious. His focus, however, is weighted heavily towards the abolition movement, giving the impression that the Pax Britannica empire of the nineteenth century was dominated by progressive, idealistic campaigners for social justice. Yes, these people existed, but the British Empire was bloody, brutal and racist well into the twentieth century. Over 26,000 women and children died in our concentration camps during the second Boer War, yet Paxman speaks of these camps mainly as something opposed and exposed by British campaigners.

I guess what really annoyed me was that Southampton University didn’t call Paxman up on any of this. He was treated as a celebrity guest, brought in to give a mediocre lecture solely for the University to show him off. Anyone in the history department could have given a better talk on empire, but most of the people attending his lecture didn’t care about the subject anyway. They were there to see Paxman in person and get him to sign their books. The questions put to him were about his favourite interviews and whether he believed in God. Just read the Wessex Scene’s OMGpaxman review of the evening for the general attitude of the crowd.

Hundreds of people showed up for Paxman, including the Vice Chancellor. The lecture was filmed and widely publicized. Professor Bhambra’s lecture, meanwhile, had a much smaller audience with no one from the higher echelons of University management, but an infinitely better subject matter. In their attitudes towards these two lectures the University has shown that they care much more about attention than about academia. The history they champion is old, out of date and frankly rather insulting. If you want to get Paxman in, get him in to talk about journalism or politics, but please, please don’t use him as a shining example of academic imperial history. Not even Paxman himself says he’s an academic.

Lewes Bonfire night 2014: the return of Scottophobia and the ’45

On November 5th we English burn effigies of that rascally traitor Guy Fawkes in memory of his attempt to blow up Parliament and the King in 1605. Seems a bit violent of us I know, but in some ways we’re making progress – we no longer stuff the guy with live cats to make him scream when burnt.

Unfortunately if there’s one thing the English find tricky to give up it’s bigotry. This is especially true of that directed against our Neighbour to the North, Scotland. The ‘no’ result of the independence referendum sent a message that although a lot of people don’t like the United Kingdom in it’s present form we’re all going to have to work at it for now. The town of Lewes in East Sussex responded with their own version of British solidarity by burning an effigy of Alex Salmond at their bonfire night celebrations.


Lewes’ effigy of Alex Salmond, source: BBC news

Although Lewes may not realise it, they’re rather eerily echoing the activities of English crowds 250 years ago. In the 1760s a number of English towns burnt effigies of the Scottish Prime Minister of Britain, Lord Bute. Bute’s unpopularity stemmed mainly from a treaty ending the Seven Years War, in which he gave up land in Canada to France and Spain. He also imposed a tax on cider, which understandably faced fierce opposition in the West Country. The Bath Chronicle reported the following on April 14th 1763:

Last week a great Number of true Lovers of Cyder and Perry assembled in Hereford, and having prepared an Effigy of a certain Great Man, finely plaided, first exposed it in the Pillory, then exalted it on a Gibbet, and lastly threw it into a large Bonfire, where it was consumed to Ashes, amidst a general Huzza.

Eighteenth-century cartoons also showed English crowds lynching and burning Bute:

The Roasted Exciseman, or The Jack Boot's Exit, (1763), © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Roasted Exciseman, or The Jack Boot’s Exit, (1763), © The Trustees of the British Museum

You may think that English people burning an effigy of a Scottish politician today as well as in the 1760s isn’t that much of a coincidence. Where it gets weird however is in that little number Salmond is holding – 45.

45In this case 45 represents the 45% of people who voted for independence in Scotland, and it’s a number that just won’t go away when it comes to Anglo-Scottish social relations. First off we have the Jacobite uprising of 1745. Bonnie Prince Charlie led an army from the Scottish Highlands into England in an attempt to reclaim the throne for the House of Stuart. For many years afterwards Scottish Jacobites venerated ‘the 45’, whilst authors such as Walter Scott romanticised the uprising into a truly national tale.

To the English meanwhile, 45 became a symbol of hostility towards Scotland. In 1763 John Wilkes published issue #45 of his newspaper the North Briton (a jibe at Scots) in which he fiercely attacked Bute’s Scottish nationality and policies. Parliament responded by imprisoning Wilkes and ordering the offending North Briton #45 to be burnt by the common hangman. However, supporters of Wilkes stormed the pillory and rescued the paper from the flames. From then onwards ’45’ became an icon of Wilkite radicalism and Scottophobia. The cry of ‘Wilkes, Liberty, and number 45!’ echoed in towns across the country. In Sawney Scot and John Bull, a belligerent Englishman sports the number derisively in the face of a Scotsman:

Sawney Scot and John Bull

Sawney Scot and John Bull (1792), © The Trustees of the British Museum

If you wanted you could even buy ’45’ pins to show off your love for (a certain brand of) liberty:

© The Trustees of the British Museum

© The Trustees of the British Museum

45 became so great a symbol of Anglo-Scottish animosity that merely mentioning it aloud was almost enough to provoke violence. The Bath Chronicle of Christmas day 1766 reported:

A few nights ago a Scotch gentleman went into an auction room, at the time that the forty-fifth lot was selling, and on asking what lot it was? A gentleman that stood next him told him that it was No.45, which the Scotchman imagined was intended as an affront, and demanded satisfaction; and a quarrel must have ensued, had not it been prevented by another Scotch gentleman of a less warm disposition

Scottish crowds responded in kind. The Leeds Intelligencer of May 3rd 1768 reported that a mob in Aberdeen hanged an effigy of John Wilkes before setting it on fire with 45 torches.

45 has been, and continues to be, a symbol of both Scottish nationalism and English Scottophobia. Whilst Lewes burns Salmond and the 45 in effigy, supporters of Scottish independence rally together as ‘We are the 45%’. It doesn’t look like the ’45 (or Anglo-Scottish tension) will be disappearing any time soon.

The Great British ‘Divorce’

Over the past few weeks more and more people have begun to ask my opinion on the Scottish independence debate. They assume (quite understandably) that as a historian of Anglo-Scottish social relations I must have some specialist insight into current events. I often don’t have the heart to correct them – hey, I’ve got an academic image to maintain!


This is the face of serious political commentary. The crab claws are not affiliated with the face.

In all seriousness though there are some aspects of current events I do feel suitably qualified to comment on. Lets clarify a few things first: this post is not about whether Scotland should stay or go. As a (nominal) Englishman I believe that question can only be answered by those in Scotland. Instead, I want to look at a metaphor for Scottish independence which keeps cropping up, usually from the ‘No’ campaign. That metaphor is ‘Divorce’. Here are a few prime examples:

“It is my duty to be clear about the likely consequences of a yes vote. Independence would not be a trial separation. It would be a painful divorce.” –David Cameron

“Most people (especially the Scots) have yet to think through the horrific financial and constitutional implications of an English-Scottish divorce.” – Boris Johnson

“After the love-bombing came the hint of steel, the equivalent of whispering: ‘By the way, if you walk out, you’re not getting to keep the car and the keys to the timeshare apartment.'” – The Daily Telegraph

“Divorce lawyers’ bickering over currency arrangements, nuclear weapons and economic advantage takes precedence over appraisal of what is at the heart of the marriage.” – The Guardian

For further examples of the divorce analogy see this article in the Guardian by Libby Brooks. The most extreme one I’ve found so far was actually posted in the Facebook page of one of my local churches:

let no man separate

‘demonic principality’? However we may have got here I don’t think it was due to an alliance between Beelzebub and Wales.

In case you’re wondering “What God has joined together let not man separate” are the words of Jesus in Mark 10:9, when the Son of Man took 10 minutes out of his schedule to discuss a political union which would take place in 1700 years time between two countries which didn’t even exist yet. Or he may have been talking about divorce between a husband and wife, it’s a bit of a moot point amongst Biblical scholars.

Anyway, the image we’re bombarded with is a love story between two countries. The fairy tale version of the marriage plays out something like this:

Once upon a time the dashing young Albion was out riding his silver stallion along the banks of the Tweed. He looked across the river and his gaze fell upon the beautiful red-haired Caledonia on her white mare. Almost instantly Albion was in love, and set about to win Caledonia’s heart. He wooed and he courted, and marriage exhorted until finally Caledonia agreed. The two were wed, and for many years lived alongside one another in bliss as Albion and Caledonia ‘Britannia’. Together they forged a flourishing kingdom and fought off evil enemies who were jealous of all they had achieved. Yet as time went on Caledonia grew sad. She began to long for a new life by herself, to make her own decisions and go her own way. Naturally Albion was heartbroken. As Caledonia contemplated whether to stay or go he leaned in close and whispered in her ear “Know this: if you leave us, we will miss you in our hearts. And you will miss us.”

I know what you’re thinking, but HANDS OFF! I’m already in talks with Disney. We’re hoping to provide comic relief with an animated goat voiced by Rob Brydon.

Not a baaaad idea eh?… I’m so sorry.

The fairy tale marriage is a nice way of looking at the union. Unfortunately it is a fairy tale. The marriage metaphor breaks down when you simply consider that the United Kingdom isn’t just England and Scotland. Wales and Northern Ireland contain nearly 5 million people between them, so how do they fit into this love story? In The Story of the Injured Lady (published 1746) Jonathan Swift presented Ireland and Scotland as the mistresses of England, an analogy which shows the slightly messier nature of the UK’s history. If Christopher Nolan’s Batman films have taught us anything it’s that everything needs a gritty reboot, and our fairy tale marriage is no exception. So in order to tell this story properly we must first fire Rob Brydon and replace him with Tom Hardy in full Bane-mode.

bane goat

“It does not matter who we are. What matters is our plaaaaaan.”

The gritty reboot version of the ‘marriage’ goes something like this (links go to wikipedia for the sake of simplicity. I’m also playing fast and loose with the characters’ genders because the language of sexuality is a very real issue in the Scottish independence debate):

Puffing on her cigar, Albion gazed across the Tweed. His eyes fell upon Caledonia who gazed back at him. Each felt like there was a certain ‘something’ between them, but they weren’t quite sure what it was. For the next few centuries they proceeded to beat the living snot out of each other, because nothing says “I love you” like a bit of Rough Wooing. Occasionally Albion turned on the charm offensive for Cymru and Hibernia, and for many years there was one almighty rumble in the Atlantic Archipelago.

Gradually things began to settle down, especially when Albion, Caledonia and Cymru glanced across the pond and realized that the one thing they hated more than each other was a bloke in Rome telling them what to do. Having previously kinda married Cymru, Albion invited Caledonia to join the two of them for a little tête-à-têteà-tête. Caledonia was uneasy, but he had recently lost a lot of money gambling in Panama so she decided to give it a go. Things were a bit messy for the first forty years and all parties still occasionally beat each other senseless. However, all that changed when their joint business venture ‘Subjugating Dark People (un)Limited’ really took off and made them a lot of money.

After an attempted affair with a gallant Gaul, Hibernia was ‘persuaded’ to join the marriage, having previously been little more than a customer of the business. He was never really happy in the marriage however, especially when she nearly starved and the other partners did nothing to help. Eventually Hibernia left the marriage, but as part of the divorce settlement Albion, Caledonia and Cymru got to cut off his head and keep it.

As the years went by the marriage became increasingly strained. After the collapse of the business Caledonia, Cymru and Hibernia’s head began to wonder whether marriage was still the right thing for them. Parts of Hibernia’s head kept trying to bite everyone, to which Albion responded with some furious beatings. All four of them eventually agreed to give each other a bit of space. They all remained in two minds about whether the marriage would work, but on Thursday Caledonia will decide whether to stay or go.

Disney have yet to call.