Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Comment: 'Historians of the Present'

From LSHG Newsletter # 54 January 2015

How should we consider the Scottish referendum or the 70th anniversary of Attlee's election?  

At the Institute of Historical Research on 29 November 2014 the London Socialist Historians Group organised a discussion on the historical implications of the Scottish Referendum vote on 18  September. We asked well known socialist historian Neil Davidson who has written extensively on Scotland to lead off a roundtable discussion.

The event was well attended enough to provoke a lengthy discussion (which was the idea) and whether or not it worked you will be able to judge for yourself. It was recorded and in due course will be podcast on the IHR website.

The idea behind the event was first voiced by the late Eric Hobsbawm when he told a meeting of the Communist Party Historians Group that they must become ‘historians of the present too’.

Hobsbawm was referring specifically to why the old Communist Party Historians Group did not write about the 1917 Revolution in Russia and subsequent developments but the point has wider purchase.

Of course current events are not history. How long it takes them to be so is a moot and debatable point particularly given the fashion for cultural-type histories of the 1970s and 1980s. However history can inform and provide context for the present and it is something that is all too often absent from media debates.

For example, one often sees such debates about whether the Labour Party needs to reach beyond a core working class electorate to win elections. The answer is, yes it is does, and it has done since 1900. The interesting thing is how it has gone about this from time to time, although this is apparently never of interest to media commentators.

The November debate ranged across the 1688 Revolution, the Nairn/Anderson discussion in New Left Review in the 1960s and much else, as well as views on current Scottish left and radical politics.

At the end of February 2015 (details elsewhere in the Newsletter) we’ll be holding an event which will take a slightly different perspective on Labour, looking at the 70th anniversary of the election of the 1945 Attlee Labour Government. Ken Loach’s Spirit of ’45 has explained what was positive about that time, particularly in the current context but there is surely more to be said historically than that. (This was a Government that ushered in the NHS but also gave the green light to British nuclear weapons, for example.)

That is what a relevant socialist historical practice should be about. 

Keith Flett

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