Archives for 2015

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Dec 07


I’ve written a paper on communist anti-imperialism for a conference in Paris on ‘The People and Decolonization’. It develops some points I first made in my book on the British Left and India, using newly available research material from a number of archives, including those of the Communist International (the Comintern), the Communist Party of Great Britain, and the security services.

I argue against the idea that metropolitan anti-imperialism was doomed to failure because of the compromising economic interests of British workers, or their apathy and ignorance concerning ‘the colonies’. Both competing economic interests and ignorance were indeterminate: they could support anti-imperialism as well as work against it. There was therefore significant room left for the conceptualisation and organisation of anti-imperialism by political ‘entrepreneurs’. The records of the Communists are exceptionally good in describing these conceptual and organisational efforts, and provide the basis for a close analysis of the successes and failures.


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Dec 02


This is the latest in a series of chapters and articles about solidarity between insiders and outsiders – or constituents and adherents, as I term them – in social movements. It concerns the possibilities and limits of shared emotions, and especially shared humour, in a social movement. The case study is the movement for women’s liberation in Britain in the 1970s. Ridicule, I argue, was often a trigger for political mobilisation, and both laughter and ‘unlaughter’ became weapons for feminists. Once politicised, humour became a source of political disagreement and unhappiness between activists.

Elsewhere, in writing about the women’s suffrage movement, I have argued that Edwardian men’s laughter, along with their imperturbability, were the two male emotional responses that the women wanted to break, by producing spectacle that men could not laugh at. In this paper I return to the question of laughter, but from an unstudied angle.

Laughter is one way in which the personal – bodies and emotions – betray us. Even when we hold political beliefs sincerely (or believe we do), we can reveal our ambivalence through involuntary and inappropriate laughter. For these reasons – the new sensitivity to laughter that arises from new perspectives, and the ambiguity of the relationship between what we believe and what we laugh at – humour almost always becomes a battleground in a new social movement. In this paper, I look at women’s campaigns against sexist humour, at counter-attacks on feminism as ‘humourless’, and at the part-guilty, part-defensive responses among the male allies of feminism concerning what they laughed at, and at what it meant to do so. I use a psychoanalytically-informed perspective on humour to explain, among other things, why men and women, even when they shared feminist commitments, did not always laugh at the same things, the persistence of hostility to women as joke-tellers; old and new defences offered for sexist humour; and the emergence of the ‘ironic’ and the ‘self-deprecatory’ tendentious joke.

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Jul 28


I am speaking this week at a conference in Paris about the 2015 election.  My paper concerns the result in England and Wales (other people are speaking about Scotland), and especially the main explanation of that result: the destruction by the Conservatives of their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. To an historian, this is a truly remarkable outcome, because the history of coalitions and hung parliaments would have predicted almost none of it.

One important historical observation is that in Britain hung parliaments almost never produce coalitions. 2010 is therefore very unusual. Coalitions are either produced by wars or – another interesting aspect – are ‘unnecessary’ coalitions formed by the Conservatives even when they could have governed alone. Another historical observation is that the smaller parties in these ‘unnecessary’ coalitions tend either to be absorbed into the Conservative Party, with the happy outcome that they are often unopposed by the Conservatives at future elections; or to get out in time to preserve their independence.  It is historically unprecedented for the smaller party to do what the Liberal Democrats did, which is to enter a coalition with so few guarantees to enable them to preserve their independence of action in office, and without an electoral pact to protect them in the subsequent election.

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Jun 13


I’m speaking at a conference in Paris tomorrow, about the recent uk election which, to many people’s surprise, produced a Conservative majority rather than another hung Parliament. The subject of my paper is the Conservatives’ rout of the Liberal Democrats in England, which – along with events in Scotland – explains the difference. I am going to look at this from an historical perspective. My argument begins from the claim that although this isn’t a hung Parliament, the outcome is a direct result of the fact that the last Parliament was a hung Parliament. It was a consequence of coalition and the decisions taken by the Liberal Democrats in 2010.

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Jan 29


My article on the presence and absence of men in the women’s liberation movement in britain in the late 1960s and 1970s has appeared in Historical Journal. It provides evidence that men were present at conferences and workshops at the start of the Movement, but were rapidly excluded, or excluded themselves. It explores the reasons for this decision, and the difficulties the ‘problem of men’ caused within the women’s movement, especially between socialist feminists, many of whom wanted to go on working with men, in certain ways and on certain conditions; and radical and revolutionary women, who did not. The ‘problem of men’, I argue, outlasted their departure from the movement in the early 1970s, and the issue remained divisive at least until the late 1970s.

I am starting a research project on the question that this example suggests to me, which is why men’s participation differed so much from what it had been in the Women’s Suffrage Movement before the First World War.


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Jan 17


A chapter I have written on anti-imperialism in 1960 has just been published.  It is based on a paper I gave at a conference at the University of East Anglia on the fiftieth anniversary of Harold Macmillan’s ‘Winds of Change’ speech to the South African Parliament.   I spoke about metropolitan (British) anti-imperialism in January 1960, and my paper  – and the chapter too – are based on four anti-imperialist texts which were all written or published during the six weeks that Macmillan was away touring Africa.

There is one from the Labour Party, one from the Movement for Colonial Freedom, one by Tony Benn reporting from the All-African People’s Conference in Tunis, and George Lamming’s The Pleasures of Exile which, I discovered, was written almost exactly across the six weeks of Macmillan’s tour of Africa.

I started the paper with the text above (written in 1963).  See if you can guess who wrote it.  The (surprising) answer is in the chapter.

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