Thursday, 19 May 2016

Lord Asa Briggs (1921-2016) and the future of labour history

[From London Socialist Historians Newsletter 58 (Summer 2016)]
For some reason the Guardian obituary of Asa Briggs who has died at 94 while admitting he was a bit of a lefty somehow managed to gloss over his specific relationship with labour history.
I didn’t know and never met Briggs but I certainly did know some of the Marxist historians with whom he was associated in the 1950s and 1960s including Christopher Hill, E.P. Thompson and particularly John Saville.
Briggs edited two volumes of Essays in Labour History with Saville (1960) and presided also in 1960 over the founding the Society for the Study of Labour History.
I’m pleased to say that the Society is still very much with us as are conferences organised by it and its journal Labour History Review.
Even so labour history in 2016 is hardly what it was in the 1960s.
I was in the British Library this week looking at the 1994 re-print of Royden Harrison’s Before the Socialists. Harrison was the first co-editor (with Sidney Pollard) of the SSLH bulletin. In his 1994 introduction to BFS first published in 1965, he argues that the 1960s were in effect very much the moment of labour history.
For reasons which are too obvious to bang on about (Thatcher and Blair..) labour history is not currently the most sexy of academic subjects.
As the organiser of the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research I get very few seminar proposals (perhaps a couple a year) in the broad area of labour history.
That is partly because the subject is unfashionable but also partly (see EP Thompson’s 'Homage to Tom Maguire') because radical and socialist history has broadened out and moved on itself.
Pieces about men in suits who attained high office in the labour movement are not generally in vogue.That is not a bad thing if the point is that the movement is much more than that.  On the other hand it is still useful and sometimes interesting to know and understand how they attained such a position and what they got up to while there.
On the same point it is the 40th anniversary (Spring 1976) of the first issue of History Workshop Journal itself still published and now with a lively website too.
We should at least raise a clenched fist to the role that Lord Asa Briggs played in putting labour history on the political, historical and academic map. He may have been a man of the Establishment (he wrote the official history of the BBC) but he performed some very useful things for our side too.
Keith Flett

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