I’ve come to anticipate the response I’ll get when I tell people the topic of my dissertation. It is, incidentally, the same response you might get while trying to explain polyamory to a maiden aunt: “That’s…. very modern”.
I know, as historians, stereotype dictates that we’re meant to spend our time enthusing over Gladstone and ruining our posture in archives, wading back into the Definite Past- but, as I look back at an academic career motivated largely by my involvement (and investment) in contemporary politics, I can safely say that this has never been me.
Upon beginning my masters I faffed about for a time with longwinded books on Gordon Brown and the Liberal underpinnings of New Labour thought until realising that this was just as crushingly dull as you’d suspect. I found myself increasingly drawn to oral history, to subjective history- to the kind of history which seeks to record lived experience, in all its strange, unvarnished, emotional and inaccurate glory. Reading Luisa Passerini’s astonishingly vivid account of the 1968 student movement, or Lizzie Goodman’s life changingly excellent oral history of the New York music scene I realised this was the kind of history that I wanted to write. The people in these books live and breathe and reflect on the passing of time. They forget and distort and cast themselves as the heroes of their own stories and are unfailingly real and recognisable.
I was also increasingly sure of the event I wanted to apply this kind of approach to. I may be inundated with askance glances and comments about modernity and presentism, but honestly, doesn’t the 16th of June, 2016, seem a very long time ago? Think about everything you’ve done since then- you, you reading this, have watched Donald Trump become president, you’ve probably fended off hangovers and heartbreak and argued about electricity bills and worn things that, with hindsight, you somewhat regret. Time has passed.
Do you remember where you were that Thursday, when the Labour MP Jo Cox was killed in the street? I know a lot of people in Labour politics, and they almost always do: as I set out to find interviewees, this was almost always the first thing they told me, I was there, I was here, I was in the committee room, I was out pounding the pavements. People have things to say about this event; they have incorporated it into their personal narratives, are unusually self aware about its influence on their politics. There is a generation of people in politics growing up in the shadow of this murder, which is for most of them somewhere between a personal tragedy and a news event. This is something people talk about, something that matters to them: it matters, in fact, to me, as someone who found themself caught in the squall of elections and activism as 2016 rushed by.
Where will that go, all that mattering? It’ll be scattered in speeches to conference; it’ll be part of what motivates people to pursue politics as a career, or to get out of it; this awful crime that’s beginning to be far more forgotten than I ever thought it could be will linger in the political aether, perhaps rearing its head when politicians’ remarks about “heating the knife” and the “killing zone” hit the headlines. I hope, with my research, to capture a sense of the impact it has had on young people who are involved in politics.
Much political history is rather staid; given the often frankly deranged, incredibly emotional nature of even the most dead eyed politicians (did you know Peter Mandelson once phoned Gordon Brown and told him “I love you, but I can destroy you”?) I’ve always found this somewhat perplexing. I hope to contribute to the body of research that illustrates the strange, emotive nature of the political sphere.
Ultimately, whether you think this research is worthwhile depends on whether you believe that we can separate the personal from the political. If you aren’t interested in muddying the waters of the empirical with stories of people crying onto their canvas sheets, this is not the project for you. But if you believe, as I do, that attempts to separate the two damage our hope of ever understanding why it is people do politics rather than simply have it done to them, then this is for you. And ,if you’re worried about how well we might be able to see the recent past without the much-vaunted benefit of hindsight, the St Edmund Hall library where I sit writing this one blurry December day seems a particularly fine place to remind you of T.S. Elliot’s words on the subject:
“…So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.”