Bloody Britannia Indeed!

Last week, I was the principle commentator on a panel entitled “Bloody Britannia,” which took place during the 3rd Annual Graduate Student History Conference at Central Michigan University. This was a conference I first organized in 2008, so it’s always pleased me to see them continuing the effort, and I was happy to participate. All three student papers during my panel were very good, and the panel itself was ably led by Dr. Ben Weinstein, a relatively recent faculty in the CMU History Department I was finally able to meet. Huzzah to everyone involved.

Because I thought it would be interesting and instructive, I have decided to post my commentary to the panel here on the blog. I had typed out my comments to keep from rambling, and, if I do say so myself, I thought the brief comments turned out pretty well (especially considering I was still sick and whacked out on cold medicine when I wrote and delivered them). So here you go, along with the presenters and their papers:

Bloody Britannia
Chair: Dr. Ben Weinstein, Central Michigan University

“Betrayal and Malcontents: The Cato Street Conspiracy and Parliamentary Reform, 1820″
Errin Stegich, Wayne State University

“The Roots of Bloody Sunday”
James Campbell, Wayne State University

“Marxist and Post-Colonial Theory in Postwar Belfast and Detroit: George Breitman, James Boggs, and Bernadette Devlin”
Patrick Kirkwood, Central Michigan University/University of Strathclyde

Comment: Dr. Andrew D. Devenney, Grand Valley State University

“Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, fellow panelists and distinguished audience. I shall endeavor to keep my comments relatively brief, so that the rest of you can more fully engage our panelists here in further discussions on their excellent paper presentations.

One of the quirky by-products of commenting on a panel at a graduate history conference such as this is the difficulty, at times agonizingly so, in finding common threads and coherent themes among disparately sourced paper submissions. As one of many banes for a conference organizer, sometimes you “got to dance with them what brung you,” as they say, and hope that the panel chair, commentator, and audience are able to draw the threads together themselves, producing in the end a useful and stimulating panel session. Upon reading the three papers presented here today, and much to my relief, we have no such problem with this panel on “Bloody Britannia,” as all three papers are absolutely brimming with common themes, linkages, and connections.

Framed as we are by the broader conference theme of “Challenging Boundaries and Transcending Borders,” the three papers all broadly explore aspects of the intersection of violence, radicalism, and reform in the modern British experience. Patrick Kirkwood does so through a comparative examination of the linkages between protest and reform movements in postwar Belfast and Detroit. Using a comparative rubric centered on “segregation” as his jumping off point, he explores a number of intriguing connections between the US African American civil rights and black power movements and the various Republican and Catholic movements agitating in Northern Ireland in the 1960s-1970s. James Campbell, in his paper, seeks to investigate more fully the circumstances surrounding the infamous “Bloody Sunday” massacre in Derry, Northern Ireland, on January 30, 1972. But rather than frame Bloody Sunday as part of the wider struggle between the British Government and Irish Republicanism in the twentieth century, James adopts a more localized perspective, attempting to discern how the particular social, political, economic, and cultural contexts of the city and people of Derry developed the fault lines which later exploded on Bloody Sunday and after. Finally, Errin Stegich uses the circumstances surrounding the Cato Street Conspiracy in 1820 to trace the origins of early nineteenth century radical thought in Britain, all the while teasing out the overt and subjective connections these radical movements had with the ideological heritage of the French Revolution and the Whig campaign for parliamentary reform.

There are, as I see it, two broad observations I can make about what binds there papers together. First, all three papers pointedly draw connections between the social effects of economic alienation, deprivation, and segregation on marginalized communities in Britain (and the US), be they ethnic, sectarian, or socioeconomic in origin, and the prominent growth of radical reform movements. Both Patrick and James touch upon the economic discrimination in jobs, housing, policing, educational opportunities, and political influence the Catholic community suffered at the hands of Unionist governments in Northern Ireland, while Errin ably relates how the political, social, and economic distress in Britain following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, and the Tory Government’s diffident attitude towards that distress, prompted radicals and reformers to take further action against the British Establishment. While this is, in some respects, a general and obvious point, it is heartening to see in this era of the Linguistic Turn (or are we in the post-Linguistic Turn now? Nobody ever sends me the memos anymore), some acknowledgment of the role class, economic experience as lived by people, and the inequities of wealth have in fostering radical and reformist discontent. In light of the current economic climate around the globe, understanding the connection in both a historical and modern sense can be rather useful. For instance, as Patrick noted in the longer piece I read that he based his presentation on, the current “peace” in Northern Ireland has been bolstered in part by positive economic growth and heavy government subsidy, and it will be interesting and worrisome to see what happens there as Britain enters a prolonged period of fiscal retrenchment following the outcome of the current British General Election.

Secondly, all three papers, in some aspect or another, touch upon the role transnational forces played in influencing events on the ground during their respective time periods. While localized or micro perspectives can at times illuminate previously unseen aspects of some historical event or experience, attention to the wider forces at work is just as powerful an approach in history, and has grown more prominent in our increasingly globalized world. Of the three, Patrick’s paper directly confronts this, using his Detroit and Belfast case studies to posit the existence of what he describes as a “transnational nexus” sharing “ideas, individuals, causes, and imagery” of protest and reform shaped by Marxist and Post-Colonial ideology. This is a particularly intriguing and fruitful approach for Patrick to take in what seems at first glance to be a rather uneven comparison, and my old transnational/comparative heart hopes to see this teased out more fully in his future work. And although he probably does not want to hear this, broadening his comparative sample beyond Belfast and Detroit would most certainly aid him in this (as well as probably add some gray to his hair in the process, but I digress…).

Both James and Errin confront the effects of transnational stimuli on their topics as well, and they would be well served to expand this particular facet of their arguments should they pursue this line of research further. For instance, James emphasizes how the introduction of television into social life in Northern Ireland in the mid-1960s brought wider, international perspectives into a rather insular cultural milieu. Beyond the basic result of showing people how good or bad others outside Northern
Ireland had it, the broadcasting of international student protests in 1968 also contributed to the radicalization of youth in Northern Ireland that would explode soon after in the Troubles. For Errin, the radical instigators of the Cato Street Conspiracy owed a considerable intellectual debt to the ideological goals of the French Revolution (liberty, equality, and fraternity), which became a rather potent transnational force ultimately backed up by the force of French arms. This meant that reformers and agitators like Thomas Spence and Arthur Thistlewood drew heavily on the themes and tropes of French liberation in their calls for radical political change in Britain, such as universal male suffrage and land nationalization. This in turn stimulated repressive responses from the British Tory Establishment as it combated what it perceived as an alien ideology stoking radical discontent among the people.

This then is perhaps the ultimate theme to take away from this panel, namely the way in which Britain, having a long history of insular international aloofness befitting an island nation, has fought, shed blood, and squeezed liberties to protect glorious Britannia from perfidious foreign ways, whether it was Popery, French Terror, Marx’s socialism, Lenin’s communism, Hitler’s fascism, 1960s student radicalism, Monnet’s Europeanism, or even Islamic fundamentalism today. Taking root in the squalor of the Victorian industrial shock city of Manchester or the depressed, deindustrialized melting pot of modern Glasgow, in the docks, quays, and warehouses of interwar London’s East End or a gnome-filled conference room in Brussels, these transnational forces have been met time and again with a mixture of dogged resistance, blunt repression, willful conflation, and, in some cases, grudging acquiescence. Bloody Britannia indeed. Thank you, Patrick, James, and Errin, for some interesting and engaging food for thought.”

Copyright 2010© by Andrew D. Devenney. All rights reserved.


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