Can Universities Change the World? A History of 20th Century British Student Life and Political Activism

Paper given at the University of Birmingham Politics Discussion group on the evening of 14/10/19 

The University of the Factory Owners

To begin thinking about whether universities can, or can’t change the world, it is important to recognise why universities emerged in capitalist societies and the role that they have played and continue to play in sustaining and reproducing the current system of social relations.

The quickest glance at the University of Birmingham’s website will tell you that the university was founded in 1900. But why was it that a university came into being in Birmingham at the dawn of the 20th Century?

An answer to this question can be found in exploring the economic structure and political economy of the city prior to the First World War. In Victorian times Birmingham was dominated as it had been since the middle ages by the interests of hundreds if not thousands of small scale manufacturers. Buying the labour of at most a handful of workers, these small scale capitalists, who made specialist products from metal such as cutlery, firearms and jewellery, were primarily concerned with keeping down taxes on their profits and keeping state regulation out of their workshops, which were often literally part of their houses.

As the 19th Century progressed, however; a small class of major manufacturers who had access to the capital necessary to build huge factories requiring the labour of thousands of workers emerged. The demands of this small group of incredibly wealthy often intermarried families of major capitalists differed from those of the older class of small workshop owners. In contrast to the thousands of small businessmen who had previously been dominant in Birmingham, these new kinds of owners, families such as the Kenrick’s, the Chamberlain’s, the Guests, the Keens, the Nettlefolds, and the Cadbury’s, actively lobbied for certain forms of state provision of services.

For instance: the older groups of workshop owners, when they had to buy the labour of people outside their families, favoured taking on young children from the streets around their homes and teaching them very specific sets of trade related skills. Whereas the new owners of the large factories preferred paying a little bit more in taxes to provide children with elementary education and then buying their labour as general semi-skilled workers, to undertake a range of tasks in their production processes, because at scale this was a far cheaper way for them to get a productive workforce.

Other examples include the creation of publicly owned water and gas companies because the major owners realised that it was cheaper for them if the gas and the water needed for their vast factories was provided by single City Council owned firms as opposed to a raft of competing private entities. In a similar vein they supported the Council’s work to construct a tram network as it meant that workers could be housed on the edge of the city, where land was cheaper and brought to their workplaces, enabling wages to be lower. As it happens many of those houses were rented from a notorious landlord and speculative builder called Henry Barber, a charitable trust in whose name, provides the university with a grant currently worth over £2million a year which covers the operating costs of the Barber Institute and funds a number of academic posts in the Art History, Music and Philosophy Departments.

This is the political economy out of which the University of Birmingham emerged. In many ways the university’s foundation was part of a nation wide, or indeed international phenomenon, given that universities were founded in Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Belfast and Leeds within a decade of the University of Birmingham being established. As early as 1903 national government began providing grants to support research and teaching in the newly founded universities, however, the impetus and initial funding needed to establish a university had to come from the economic and political elites in a city or region.

These elite interests were clear that the purpose of these new universities was to sustain and reproduce the economic system upon which their interests rested. The focus at the new University of Birmingham was upon science, engineering and business studies. When it first opened in 1910 the Edgbaston campus was entirely focused upon teaching and research in science and engineering. A Business School, the first in the UK, was set-up in 1907 to conduct teaching and research in the then brand new fields of management and administration science, the idea being to train managers and administrators for Birmingham and the West Midlands’ industries.

Old Joe Must Fall

Which is not to say that the university during this early period was solely focused upon Birmingham and its surrounding region, far from it. The major industrialists who had lobbied for and funded the creation of the university were deeply embroiled in the workings of the UK’s colonial expansion, which reached its zenith in the first third of the Twentieth Century. Joseph Chamberlain, the University’s first Chancellor, who is commemorated in an immensely visible way; by the Old Joe Clock Tower, was the Colonial Secretary in the Conservative governments between 1895 and 1905. Even by the standards of the Tory Party just over a century ago, Joe Chamberlain was considered a zealous imperialist and something of a national chauvinist, highly entangled with and supportive of figures like Cecil Rhodes. That is the Cecil Rhodes whose ongoing influence upon higher education around the world through the trusts and foundations he established, has recently been challenged by students of colour and decolonising activists through the Rhodes Must Fall Campaign.

Just as insidious was the way in which the hydrocarbon industry was woven into the fabric of the university from its very beginning. A School of Mining was established at Edgbaston in 1905 complete with a functioning model coal mine, which was located near where the Sports Centre now is. In 1908 following the discovery of oil in what’s now Iran, the School of Mining branched out into serving the oil industry as well, with model oil derricks being erected on what’s now the playing fields by the Bristol Road. Engineers and chemists from the newly formed Anglo-Iranian Oil Company then worked with the university to refine the emerging science of petrochemistry, beginning a connection between that company and the university which continues to this day. Following the nationalisation of the Iranian oil industry in 1951 by the government of Mohammed Mossadeq, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company renamed itself British Petroleum and more recently BP.

What this history of the early days of the university shows, is that from the start; the institution has been deeply enmeshed in the reproduction of the existing system of social relations. I am sure that everybody here can think of examples from the contemporary life of the university, and their experiences as members of its community, which replicate the university’s early grounding in the maintenance and reproduction of capitalist, colonial and fossil fuel based power.

These fundamentals are essential to understanding the education that the university offers those who study here, and those who come into contact with its wider educational and research mission. This can only raise vital questions for members of the university community who seek to challenge aspects-or the entirely-of the current system of social relations. Essentially, given that students and other activists at the university are part of an institution which has a key ideological and functional role to play in sustaining capitalism; how can they seek to challenge the conditions around them and change the world?

Scab Students?

There are at least partial answers which can be gleaned through looking historically at student life at the university. For most of the first 70 years of the existence of the University of Birmingham, as a historian when looking in the archive for the history of student activism, you end up asking yourself: what activism? Looking through the archives of Redbrick and other publications produced by students for students, politics for students between the foundation of the University and the 1960s, if it took place in any overt form, was highly conventional. There are references to debating at the Guild of Students, to campus branches of the Conservative, Liberal, Labour and Communist Parties, but not to anything that could be considered direct action and campaigning. It is all very refined and restrained, though essentially not that different from middle class forms of political expression that prevailed throughout British society in the first two thirds of the 20th Century.

To understand why this was the case, it is important to understand what the student body at the University of Birmingham was like prior to the late 1960s. For a start compared to today it was absolutely tiny. Today the university has 35,000 students and at least 8,000 staff. Prior to the Second World War the university had 2,000 students and several hundred staff, if that. Even in the early 1960s-after nearly 20 years of steady expansion following the 2nd World War-the number of students was still just over 3,000.

It was also an incredibly male student body. In 1961, 75% of the student population of the University of Birmingham were men. This was comparable to the situation in the 1920s and 1930s when there were pretty much no women students at the university who were not being paid for too be there by government teacher training grants. The male students as well were usually at university for very instrumental reasons studying technical and scientific subjects with a view to getting technical and administrative jobs in industry and state apparatus. These conditions, plus the solidly middle middle and upper middle class milieus that these students were drawn from, meant that they tended to have Conservative leanings.

Until the late 1950s when the government began to put a substantial amount of money into providing grants to students, the overwhelming majority of Birmingham students were drawn from a thirty mile radius of the university’s campuses. They also tended to live at home whilst they were studying, reducing the opportunities available for them to encounter influences, including things as simple as living with or meeting up outside of university hours with fellow students, outside the social sphere that they came from.

Indeed prior to the upsurge in student activism that took place in the late 1960s and 1970s the popular image of students was that they were either apolitical or an actively Conservative force in society. The historian of left activism in the 1960s and 1970s Cecilia Hughes has interviewed student activists from working class backgrounds who came from trade union, Labour or Commnist voting backgrounds. A number of her interviewees recall their families being concerned about them going away, in part because their popular image of what students were like, was conditioned by memories of students from universities like Birmingham volunteering to drive lorries, buses and trams and to work in key industries like electricity generation, so as to break the 1926 General Strike. Indeed, in the form of alumni Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain the University of Birmingham, provided the Conservative Prime Ministers who governed the UK for the overwhelming majority of the period between the end of the First World War and the start of the Second World War. A vivid illustration of how university education during this period served to reinforce and reproduce conservative outlooks.

So, given that there was an outbreak of student militancy in the late 1960s, which continued with varying degrees of intensity throughout the 1970s and indeed beyond, what changed?

The University is a Factory

Two key moments and movements worth honing in on are the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which was founded in 1958, and the anti-Aparthied movement which also got going in the late 1950s. Both the CND and the anti-Aparthied movements were far more confrontational than previous predominantly middle class movements. They also had a strong appeal to students, not least because of the ways in which universities across the world were enmeshed in the military industrial complex, and the fact that British universities often had close ties to southern Africa, which made British students feel complicit in the racist regimes which governed South Africa and Rhodesia.

The University of Birmingham in particular had longstanding ties to the white nationalist governments in Pretoria and Salisbury. The government of Rhodesia based in Salisbury had established a university college in the 1950s which ran university level courses but could not award its own degrees. Birmingham offered to award degrees to University College Salisbury students, which prompted protests by Birmingham students which continued fairly consistently from the early 1960s until 1980 when the segregationist government fell and black majority rule was implemented in the newly renamed Zimbabwe. University College Salisbury was a segregated institution, to protest this, from 1962 onwards University of Birmingham students, through the Guild, raised several thousand pounds each year to pay for a black Rhodesian student to travel to Birmingham to study. This was the most prominent part of a wider campaign against the racist colonial regimes in southern Africa, which included boycotts of firms which did business in the region and protests against politicians and others, who supported the South African and Rhodesian governments when they visited campus.

These single issue campaigns injected a new tenor, more open to challenging authority, into what had previously been a quiet and conservative campus milieu. However, as is always the case, it was changing material conditions and new social forms which led to the emergence of student radicalism and militancy at Birmingham and other universities.
In the late 1950s it was decided by the government, following lobbying for industry who like their early 20th Century forebearers required more highly skilled workers and did not want to have to pay to train them, themselves; that there would be a major expansion in student numbers. Ever since the Second World War, the number of students had slowly been increasing, so that by 1960 around 3% of school leavers went to university. Twenty years previously only around 1% had done so. At the same time the amount of money that the government spent each year on maintenance and tuition grants for students also increased meaning that a larger proportion of the student body was being paid to go to university and they did not have to pay fees.

In 1961 a Conservative government extended this provision even further, effectively abolishing tuition fees and setting a standard grant rate of around three and a half pounds a week for students living away from home. This was more money than the majority of manual workers were paid each week, so whilst not exuberant, was more than enough for a single young person to live on, away from home. Then in 1963 the Robbins Report revamped the government’s entire university policy, stipulating that “universities should be open to all those qualified and able to attend who wish to do so”, and just as strikingly; that the government shouldn’t try and control what people wanted to study. This meant that universities were allowed to run any course they wanted that they could get students to study.

The effect of these new policies was almost instant. The percentage of school leavers attending university tripled from 3% to 9% within six years. Some of these new students were accommodated in new universities such as Warwick, Sussex and York, but the majority took up places at established universities like Birmingham. At Birmingham by 1970 the student body numbered over 9,000 an increase from around 3,000 just ten years earlier.

Material Issues, Concrete Calls for Action

As was inevitable, despite possibly the most generous government funding settlement for British universities ever, this sudden rapid growth led to immense teething problems. Campuses were rapidly expanded with new halls of residence, teaching blocks and facilities hastily being thrown up to meet government targets. Quite often these new buildings were poorly designed and constructed as they’d been commissioned to tight budgets. Often there were hold-ups and delays in their completion. The Muirhead Tower, which like most of the University of Birmingham’s teaching space, dates from this era, is a case in point having been begun in 1965 it wasn’t finished until 1971, and even then was plagued by serious structural faults for decades after it was finished.

It was to a campus very much under construction that the students who took part in the 1968 Occupation of the Great Hall arrived in the mid-1960s. If you read through back copies of Redbrick and other student publications from the period, and listen to the memories and reflections of people who were students at this time, many of the complaints seem strikingly like ones that people might have today. About a lack of social space, about half finished buildings, about support services not keeping up with the volume and pace of university expansion.

Accomodation was an especially pressing concern for students arriving at Birmingham. The number of students arriving from across the country to study at the university overwhelmed the university’s underesourced programme to construct new halls of residence. This meant that students had to look for flats and rooms in the private sector at a time when there was a severe shortage of private accommodation to rent in Birmingham, which put upwards pressure on prices and meant that some students ended up living in incredibly poor accommodation. At this time, whilst the student body was rapidly growing, it was a fraction of the size that it is citywide today, so there was nobody other than universities building or renting accommodation specifically to students.

To my mind it is these conditions and the discontents they bred which led to the upsurge in student militancy in the late 1960s. It is often forgotten that in France in 1968 the first student occupation broke out after the dismissive and patronising response a student at Paris VIII University received from the visiting Education Minister, when he complained during a Q&A about the lack of social space in his accomodation block. These material conditions and the quality of life that people are able to enjoy matter. And judging by the way they are juxtaposed in the publications of the time it is clear that a poor housing situation, poor facilities and a half finished campus, formed a key backdrop to the student protests which erupted at Birmingham in 1968.

Which is not to overlook the role of wider cultural and political change in creating the conditions which led to the protest and the occupation. Key amongst these are the fact that an increasingly large proportion of students at the university were studying social science and humanities disciplines, as opposed to the technical and scientific subjects, which earlier generations of students had overwhelmingly studied. These disciplines gave students the skills and ability to understand and critique the conditions that they found themselves in.

Likewise, because the humanities and social sciences were expanding so rapidly during this period, an unusually large number of the staff teaching students were themselves young. They were freshly minted PhD graduates in their 20s and 30s. As such they were keen to use new approaches and literature in their teaching. The Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 led to a large number of members of the Communist Party of Great Britain resigning in protest, and in doing so; set the seeds for a flourishing of Marxist and critical thought in Britain and elsewhere that perhaps has only been mirrored by the current phase that we’re going through. This new left included the historian E.P. Thompson and the literature critic Raymond Williams who contributed to a revolution in the study and teaching of History and English respectively. It also included younger figures like the sociologist and critic Stuart Hall, who was involved in founding the New Left Review, and who began teaching at Birmingham in 1964, in the newly founded Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies.

Students exposed to these worldviews also had access to newly translated and published Marxist classics, as well as the growing body of structuralist theory that was emerging in Europe. These books produced in cheap editions readily affordable to students on fairly generous grants were the fuel that underpinned students’ growing critique of the world around them.

Farenheit 27/11

The lightning rod for the protest movement at Birmingham in 1968 and the subsequent occupation of the Great Hall which ran from the 27th November until the 4th December, was the lack of say that students had in the governance structure of the university. Students wanted more direct input into every aspect of their lives as students: from the decisions of the university’s accommodation and catering committees, to the university’s strategic direction, to matters like assessment and what the university syllabus was like.

In 1968 the age of majority was still 21, it was only lowered to 18 in 1969, which meant that like a school, the university argued that it was acting “in place of parents” for the majority of the undergraduate population. For the university this meant it was entirely reasonable that students should not be allowed a say in the running of the university. At this time, after all, most of the academic staff at the university also did not have a say in how the institution was governed. Operational decisions were made by the University Council, which then as now, comprised mostly business people representing capitalist interests within the university. Academic decisions were made the Senate which was comprised almost entirely of the professors who ran each department, with only minimal representation for staff who were not professors. Within the university’s faculties and departments, again, decisions were pretty much solely made by professors. This meant that a lot of the more junior academics, who as we’ve were often not all that much older than the students they were teaching, also felt cut-out of decision making.

In February 1968 in a climate of general student and junior staff resentment and dissent a document produced by the Guild of Students called “The Student Role” began to circulate. This publication called upon the university to completely overhaul its governance structures and allow students and staff opportunities to shape the policies and direction of the institution. The University’s governing Council received the report when it was sent copies by the Guild, however, they refused to meet with the students’ union and its leadership and to publish the minutes of their internal discussions about the document.

Come the autumn term the Guild of Students and the Redbrick paper both began campaigning harder for the university to adopt its recommendations. It was clear that some kind of reckoning was on its way. The environment on campus was further charged by the fact that the university’s long serving Vice Chancellor Robert Aitken had retired over the summer. His replacement Robert Hunter had no previous experience at Birmingham and therefore no real feel for what the issues at the university were. He resolved however, that he was not going to introduce any reforms to student representation.

As the autumn term of the 1968-69 academic year continued, the Guild of Students found that its attempts to negotiate what the university were not going anywhere, and neither would the university publish a response to The Student Role. In the face of this intransigence-Ray Phillips the Guild’s politically middle of the road President-began threatening direct action. At a general meeting on the 30th October a day of protests on campus against the University Council and Vice Chancellor Robert Hunter was planned for the 27th November, with an ongoing programme of direct action after that, if the students’ demands were not met.

This day of action culminated in a full general meeting on the Guild of Students, where more radical members of the student body organised as the “Ad-Hoc Group for University Reform” managed to pass a motion calling for an occupation. The occupation began that evening with a group of student protesters taking over the Great Hall, Vice Chancellor’s Office, Council Chamber and the Finance Office in the Aston Webb Building. Activists also attempted to take over the University’s switchboards and post room, which would have severely limited the ability of the University’s managers to communicate with the outside world, however; they were denied access by a small group of university telecoms workers who were later lauded in the right-wing tabloid press for seeing off the threat from these supposed revolutionaries.

The University’s response to the occupation was extreme, senior academic managers and members of the University Council clearly did not know what had hit them. Robin Hunter recorded a televised address which was shown on screens across campus through the university’s recently installed closed circuit television system. In it he pleaded for the restoration of order and threatened terrible consequences for the organisers and participants in the occupation.

Inside the occupation the activists who were sleeping on the floors of the spaces that they’d captured organised themselves. Ray Phillips has recalled he was concerned that the University’s administration and their security guards would attempt to enter the occupation and lock-out/evict the occupiers. To avoid such a countermove the Guild organised elections to a ten member occupation committee who were responsible for security in the occupation. This was both to ensure that the University could not entire the spaces that had been occupied and also to try and avoid occupiers causing damage or making a mess that the university could later blame upon the Guild.

This standoff continued for the rest of the week with the end of term looming. On the 4th December it was decided that another Guild general meeting would be held to see whether the student body wanted to continue the sit-in. The meeting was held the next day, with roughly 5,000 people, over half the student body in attendance. It was resolved that the occupation would be ended. The students had not achieved their goals, however; they threatened further action down the line if the university continued to be intransient and also stated that they expected the following four principals be respected:

‘no victimisation, all university committees to meet in public, the right of students to a say in university government and a commission to examine the role and structure of the University’.

In assessing the outcome of the occupation in 1968 it is worth pointing out that compared to actions which took place internationally in the United States, France and Mexico, or even at other UK institutions such as Liverpool, LSE and Essex, the Aston Webb occupation in November and December of that year was relatively low-key. After all it only lasted for a week and was conducted in a relatively orderly manner. Unlike other occupations during the period 1967-69 such as Essex, Leeds, LSE-and the Warwick occupation-which took place a bit later in 1970, there was relatively little media coverage outside the West Midlands region, and even less which seriously engaged with the students’ concerns.

Longer term, the demands that the Guild had put to the university, were partially fulfilled. Today Guild sabbatical officers sit on major university committees like the Council and the Senate and students have the right to elect a number of representatives to sit on the Senate. Likewise, the course rep system, which encompasses all departments and levels of study, also dates from this time. There was also a review of university governance, which dragged on throughout the early 1970s, eventually reporting in 1975, which led to some small improvements in junior staff representation at the university, as well the changes to student involvement in university affairs outlined above.

In a similar vein the students’ demands for non-victimisation also went unheeded. Dick Atkinson a Teaching Fellow in the Sociology Department, who had been a student leader whilst a postgraduate student at LSE, was informed at the end of the 1968-69 academic year that his contract would not be renewed. This was unusual at the time, because once hired academic staff very rarely, were not offered permanent positions after a couple of years teaching at universities. His removal from the staff was widely perceived to be retaliation for the fact that he was perceived as being close to the students involved in the protests and had co-ordinated a group of junior staff who had made similar demands. Dick Atkinson became something of a cause celebre, unsuccessfully suing the university for unfair termination of contract. The Guild of Students’ in solidarity resolved to pay his salary for the 1969-70 academic year and allowed him to use their premises to teach any courses that he wanted.

He was not the only staff member to feel the chill because of his actions during the occupation. Richard Hoggart the University’s Professor of Cultural Studies, and Head of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, was perceived as not entirely sympathetic to the student activist’s demands, but also not unsympathetic either. This made his position at the university tricky and he took an extended sabbatical from the summer of 1969 to go to New York and be the CEO of UNESCO. He never returned to the University of Birmingham, moving to Goldsmith’s College instead. His deputy at Birmingham Stuart Hall moved into the Centre’s Directorship and led it throughout the 1970s, the period of time when much of its most groundbreaking and still cited work was produced.

This messy conclusion to the occupation and the very partial and incomplete way that the students’ demands were met, I think, actually overlooks a lot of key aspects of what the 1968 occupation, and other events like it in the late 1960s and early 1970s signified.

Students as an Interest Group in pre-Neo Liberal Society

After three years of fairly constant student direct action on British campuses it is fair to say that the old view of students as conservative, or apolitical had been completely chucked out the window in the eyes of the public. Students now were perceived, probably not always entirely accurately as the majority were never like this, as a radical and even destabilising force in society. Some of this was thanks to the emergence of “students” as a distinctive “class” with shared interests in society. Students during the 1960s, 1970s and into the 1980s had a collective interest in the maintenance of free university education and in defending the real terms value of the grants they received from the government.

Defending these things in an environment of high inflation when university funding was increasingly constricted, meant that there was a major wave of occupations and other protests, in defence of student grants and free education pretty much every year during the 1970s. This meant that students, despite still overwhelmingly being drawn from the middle class, had commonalities of interest with groups like benefit claimants, older people, council housing tenants and trade unionists. All of these groups from the late 1960s into the 1980s were highly organised and assertive when it came to pressing their claims for an increased share of society’s wealth and better goods and services. Students during this period were acting no differently.

What did this mean in practice? As we have seen students at Birmingham prior to the late 1960s did not generally involve themselves with overt politics and campaigning. In the two decades that followed this altered drastically. I mentioned earlier about the problems students in Birmingham during this period had with accessing good housing and accommodation. From around 1969 onwards this manifested itself in students showing solidarity with housing campaigners living in run down parts of the city like Balsall Heath. Tenants living in dilapidated Victorian properties in Balsall Heath were campaigning for their homes to be demolished and to be rehoused in new council built properties at cheaper rents. To this end they organised themselves and went on rent strike withholding payment from their landlords.

A large number of Birmingham students involved themselves in the tenants’ campaign which ran from 1969 to 1970 when it successfully concluded. In this way, following their own experience of campaigning and taking direct action in 1968, Birmingham students were showing solidarity with some of the city’s poorest residents engaged in a struggle of their own. This illustrates that when it came to access to services and social issues like housing students and non-students had a clear commonality of interest and organised and campaigned together.

At the same time students and recent graduates from the University of Birmingham were involved in setting up the Birmingham Claimants Union. This was one of the first organisations of its kind in the UK and worked to organise benefit claimants, of all kinds, so as to support them to secure the maximum amount of money possible from the benefits office. Later in the 1970s student activists also worked with community activists in areas like Selly Oak to squat abandoned buildings. Some of these squats were occupied by families and others in need of re-homing, or better housing, whereas others became occupied community centres. Some of these like the Selly Oak People’s Centre, which stood next to what’s now Big John’s takeaway, lasted for years. The People’s Centre was in use from 1975 until 1982 and was used for all sorts of purposes including women’s liberation meetings, legal advice clinics, and Rock Against Racism gigs.

What is especially striking looking back on the period from today is that lots of these activities had formal institutional backing from the Guild of Students’. The Guild of Students’ volunteering department, then called Student Community Action, was heavily involved in all manner of community campaigns. Indeed typical Guild publications from the 1970s will include adverts for volunteers to run swimming lessons for disabled people, join a befriending scheme for elderly people and run a reading group for mental health inpatients, alongside adverts for volunteers to support the People’s Centre, run welfare rights stalls and take part in housing related activism. Essentially at the time no distinction was being made between social service volunteering and more radical forms of activism. Guild officials, Guild spaces and Guild money was being used equally to support both.

To conclude this paper, and move into a discussion, I will suggest a few key things which I think have changed over the last forty years at the University of Birmingham, in the UK and in the world more generally. These are things which have made the kinds of activism I have just described harder:

  • Less reason for students to express solidarity with other groups in society
    -Changes to student finance mean grants aren’t there any more. So no longer a focus for student activism via the NUS etc. to try and get a good settlement each year
    -Social democratic state has been hacked back, fewer groups in society have clear stakes in the welfare system, those which do are marginalised.
    -Students despite getting loans are a group who have lost out and no longer see themselves as having solidarity with other groups that get government money
  • Student unions are far more controlled and regulated
    -Now have to be charities which really limits their ability to be political
    -Professional managers and other workers who have careers and don’t want to rock the boat
    -Less open and transparent democratic structures
  • *Students are now more spatially separated from wider society
    -I.e. Many are now in Selly Oak living amongst other students. Until the 1990s when student landlords became a thing this wasn’t the case. Students were scattered across Harbourne, Mosely, Kings’ Heath, Balsall Heath and other areas. This meant that they came more readily into contact with non-students and shared their problems and concerns
    -Conversely there’s more students living at home. I read the other day that 20% of full-time students now live with their parents. This means like students before the 1960s they’re cut-off from their peers and have less chance to mix with them and share now ideas and approaches to things.
  • *More pressure upon students
    -To do certain things to get certain kinds of “good jobs” post-graduation
    -More pressure to study, demands of part-time work, commuting etc.
    -To conform generally and not rock the boat
    -Affects things like mental health
  • *More diverse student body
    -No longer overwhelmingly young (late teens early 20s), middle class, white British etc.
    -More postgrads, older students etc studying part-time etc.
    -More ethnically diverse student body, more international students, the majority of students now women
    -Diversity of institutions as well

Further Reading (and Watching)

Jenny Wickham’s reflections for Redbrick on her involvement in the 1968 Occupation of the Great Hall

Helen Fisher, University of Birmingham Archivist, on the Cadbury Research Library’s holdings relating to the event of 1968 on the university campus. From Old Joe magazine.

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Birmingham 1968, by Flatpack Projects

N.B. Flatpack have a book launch event at the IKON Gallery on Tuesday 10th December 2019. It’ll feature talks, and the chance to meet a number of people who were involved in events in Birmingham during the period.


A Modernist Church in the Outer Hebrides

Scotland’s Outer Hebrides aren’t a well known destination for architectural connoisseurs.

So I was surprised the other day, driving along the narrow lane that comprises the main road in the southernmost quadrant of South Uist, to be confronted by a plain, white, building; that rather resembled a pre-multiplex-single screen-cinema.

Our Lady of Sorrows 7

Our Lady of Sorrows Church, Garrynamonie (author’s photograph)

Rather than being an unlikely north westerly outlet of the Rank Organisation, the structure, sited just across the road from the crofting hamlet of Garrynamonie-upon closer inspection-turned out to be a Roman Catholic church: Our Lady of Sorrows.

South Uist (population 1,818); along with the smaller neighbouring islands of Benbecula, Eriskay and Barra, are described, with complete justification, as being “the part of Scotland that the reformation didn’t reach”. This small chain of incredibly isolated islands are an example-unique in Britain outside of Ireland-of a surviving pre-reformation Roman Catholic community.

And they are, at least in outward expression, intensely Catholic communities at that. In a manner akin to Ireland, Brittany or further south in Europe the islands are watched over by a litany of carefully tended, colourful, alabasta saints statues situated in whitewashed grottos.

The islands; like North Uist their Calvinist neighbour, despite a low (and still shrinking) population are home to a large number of small chapels and churches, with each hamlet of more than a dozen houses seemingly served by some kind of place of worship. Very few of them, a quick scan of their outside notice boards reveals, have mass said their especially frequently. Yet still, like the saints statues, the communities within which they are situated, continue to diligently attend to their upkeep. A few church structures stand roofless, long ruined, but unlike in Wales or the parts of the far south-west there are no or few signs of churches being converted into residential properties.

Our Lady of Sorrows is no exception in this regard. Large by South Uist standards it is as unusual in its modernity, on a island where most churches are small, modest traditional structures, as it is striking in appearance.

Our Lady of Sorrows 4.jpg

Our Lady of Sorrows’ imposing front (author’s photograph)

Designed by Richard J. McCarron (then newly qualified, it was his first commission) the church was built between 1964-5 replacing an earlier, dilapidated, structure. Due to the church’s remote location most of the building work was conducted by the parishioners themselves: a striking act of faith in of itself.

Our Lady of Sorrows rear exterior.jpg

Our Lady of Sorrows rear of the building (author’s photo)


In terms of appearance Our Lady of Sorrows is stark, possibly even harsh, and angular. Despite the similarities between its form and a mid-20th Century cinema and its obvious architectural debts to the modernist movement, Our Lady of Sorrows harks back as well as forwards. It is whitewashed like so many of the other local churches and its alcoves, even its angularity, recall early Christian sites, like Celtic monasteries built in the 6-7th Centuries, as much as anything constructed during the space age. In this way it’s incredibly simple form, almost like a slab of rock growing out the landscape, connotes thousands of years of Christian tradition, whilst also serving to inject a note of modernity into a landscape and a community that can seem ancient and unchanging.

Our Lady of Sorrows 2

Our Lady of Sorrows top corner (author’s photograph)

Except this is not really the case. For all of South Uist’s remoteness, and the sheer proximity to nature inherent in life there, the island’s landscape, almost entirely deforested, subjected to horticulture, quarrying, fish farming and (admittedly light) demands from the tourism industry is as much of a manmade environment as anything on the mainland.

Only incorporated into Scotland in 1266, islands have always been plugged into wider networks of cultural exchange and commercial dealing. In many ways our Lady of Sorrows reflects this. Its construction indicates ways in which mid-20th Century Catholicism attempted to negotiate the demands that modernity placed upon the faith of its communicants.

Read this way Our Lady of Sorrows is a physical expression of how one small community attempted engaged with the movement for reform within Roman Catholicism that gathered pace around the time of the Second Vatican Council. This is expressed in the simplicity and lightness of the church’s form, it is as open in design as it is large and imposing. This speaks to the democratising impulses that animated Roman Catholic theological and liturgical thought at the time. It is also an impulse which finds its way into the church’s interior which is also plain and incorporates local slate and local timber.

What decoration there is, is largely locally inspired, taking on a rugged, naturalistic, Celtic, yet modern expression.

Our Lady of Sorrows interior 2

small altar, Our Lady of Sorrows (author’s photograph)

The Stations of the Cross are expressionistic in form, arrayed abstractly and were rendered on slate from South Uist by Canon Calum McNeil, who was the priest of a neighbouring parish.

Our Lady of Sorrows stations of the cross

Stations of the Cross, Calum McNeil (1965), Our Lady of Sorrows (author’s photograph)

The ceramic mural of the Sacred Heart produced by the artist David Harding is similar. Harding’s rendition of Jesus is abstract and colourful, recalling the tumult of the sea and the drama of the landscape within which the church and it community are situated.     

Our Lady of Sorrows ceramic

Sacred Heart David Harding (1965), Our Lady of Sorrows (author’s photograph)

In terms of layout the front of the church is also open, the pews arrayed relatively informally in short rows. The fittings are equally simple and shorn of ostentation, the worship space as a whole is bathed with sunlight by two, unobtrusive, floor-ceiling height plain glass windows.

Our Lady of Sorrows interior 1

plain glass windows, Our Lady of Sorrows (author’s photograph)

In these regards Our Lady of Sorrows is rather like hundreds of other post-war Roman Catholic churches across Britain. Churches often built to serve new estates or in slum clearance areas, part of the wide spread modernising imperative that prevailed in the middle of the 20th Century. Here’s another example (there are many more) on the excellent Sacred Suburbs website.

This said, thanks to South Uists remote location, low population density and unusual cultural and confessional history Our Lady of Sorrows is striking as an expression of how one particular and distinctive community partook in debates about modernisation and the future of religious expression. Given the number of abandoned crofts that litter the island and the modernity of the houses that most islanders live in today, it is clear that South Uist was undergoing its own form of development and modernisation at the time the church was built. The arrival of a large military base in 1958, the opening of causeways to neighbouring islands in 1961 and the creation of the Highlands and Islands Development Board in 1965 brought new contacts and new opportunities to the island.

Just as the islanders upgraded their own homes and living arrangements so they chose to update the house of their God. The years since have not been kind to Our Lady of Sorrows, like so many flat roofed buildings of its era its roof is leaking and the damp is not proving kind to its internal structure. The Islands to, have had mixed fortunes. Increased incomes, better services, rising incomes and improving transport connections, giving today’s islanders a standard of living comparable to that of mainland Scots, but conversely also making it far easier to leave and not return.

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View from the Our Lady of Sorrows church grounds (author’s photograph)

This said, the Outer Hebrides appear to be in the midst of a series of interesting experiments that raise questions for everyone interested in how people can live better, more sustainable lives, in the 21st Century. For the church’s part, Our Lady of Sorrows was listed in 2009 as part of a major exercise to recognise, record and preserve Scotland’s modernist heritage, perhaps restoration will be on the cards? The community of South Uist remains as much on the fringes of civilisation and at the centre of debate as ever.

Tracy Neumann-Wayne State & Harvard

“…in the US and elsewhere, historically and today, a term like “Rust Belt” does a lot of ideological work to naturalise the idea of decline and reinforce a binary of declining and ascendant regions.”

For the latest in my series profiling urban historians at work today, I was lucky enough to be able to catch up with Tracy Neumann. Tracy, (who’s fascinating sounding book came out yesterday) is an Assistant Professor at Wayne State University and a Postdoctoral Researcher at Harvard University. Her work explores the political and cultural ramifications of economic change, in the late 20th Century, upon North America’s “rustbelt” cities.

What is your background?

I grew up in Traverse City, a small town in Northern Michigan—when I was a kid, it was a farm town, and now it’s a popular resort area. I was a history and Russian Studies major at the University of Michigan, which is where I realized that my dream of becoming a historian of late-imperial Russia was unlikely to come true, since I only passed third-year Russian due to an extraordinary kindness on my instructor’s part. Growing up, I had wanted to be an architect, and I ended up at Cornell, combining my interests in history and architecture by pursuing a Master’s degree in historic preservation planning. While I was there, I took several urban planning courses, which sparked my interest in studying cities and planning history. After a few years working as a consultant for a cultural resource management firm, I decided I was sick of doing historical research on topics that I didn’t get to choose, and I ended up at NYU for my doctorate in history.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

“…I spent a lot of time driving around upstate and central New York, rural New England, and central Pennsylvania surveying old mills, waterworks, and grain elevators.”

Broadly speaking, I’m interested in the politics of urban development, and how global and local processes interact to shape urban space, public policy, and daily life. My first book, which comes out this month, explores the postindustrial redevelopment of manufacturing centers between the 1960s and the 1990s, with a focus on U.S. and Canadian steel towns Pittsburgh, PA, and Hamilton, ON. I came to the topic via my experiences growing up in Michigan and my job as a preservation consultant. Michigan, of course, was the center of the American auto industry, which was in the throes of restructuring when I was a kid in the 1980s. As a student at Cornell and later as a consultant, I spent a lot of time driving around upstate and central New York, rural New England, and central Pennsylvania surveying old mills, waterworks, and grain elevators. Many of my projects were in deindustrialised cities like Manchester, NH, and Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse, NY. I wondered how and why they had been allowed to decline, why urban planners and public policymakers had not done something to save manufacturing jobs. Together, these things led me to want to explain what had happened to Rust Belt cities.

Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?

“If I had understood what geography actually was when I was looking at graduate programmes, I probably would have applied for a PhD in geography instead of in history!”

My work is transnational in scope (though the empirical research focuses on the two North American cases studies), and my desire to craft a project that looked beyond national borders was very much shaped by the work of my advisor, Tom Bender, and by reading Daniel Rodgers’ Atlantic Crossings. When I began the project, I was probably most influenced by Tom Sugrue and Robert Self, who had written big books on deindustrialisation that also offered models for how to write history that takes space seriously. Bob Beauregard’s work on urban decline and urban politics was also incredibly helpful to me. As I got further into my research, I found myself reading a lot of geographers: David Harvey, Jamie Peck, Neil Smith, and Jason Hackworth have had the greatest influence on how I think about space, scale, urbanisation, and neoliberalism. If I had understood what geography actually was when I was looking at graduate programmes, I probably would have applied for a PhD in geography instead of in history!

What do you hope that readers take away from your work?

“…economic restructuring, urban decline, and postindustrial redevelopment were neither natural nor inevitable.”

In North America as well as western Europe, popular narratives tend to portray the decline of basic industry and the regions in which that decline took place as a historical inevitability—an unfortunate by-product of natural business cycles and neutral market forces. I hope that the book convinces readers that, to the contrary, economic restructuring, urban decline, and postindustrial redevelopment were neither natural nor inevitable. Instead, they were the products of decisions made over several decades by political and business elites, who worked through public-private partnerships to allocate resources in a way that exacerbated inequality and sacrificed the well-being of certain groups of residents in order to “save” cities. In doing so, they abandoned social democratic goals in favor of corporate welfare programs, fostering an increasing economic inequality among their residents in the process.

How has your work evolved over the course of your project?

When I started the project, my questions were really about deindustrialisation: why had industries and the cities that housed them declined; why hadn’t government officials better protected these places and their blue-collar workers. I ended up doing a lot of research on what happened to the steel industry, and not much of that ended up in the book. Partway through writing the dissertation on which the book is based, it became pretty clear from my research that deindustrialisation served a particular set of business interests, and that local and national governments were also focused on serving those interests. And I realized, too, that planning for postindustrial cities actually began before large-scale deindustrialisation. So, I became much more interested in explaining how public officials at all levels and local civic leaders and business elites facilitated the postindustrial transformations of manufacturing centers and in figuring out to what degree that was or wasn’t bound up with neo-liberal urbanism.

On the broadest possible scale what ideological purpose has the “creation of the Rustbelt” served?

“…if decline is natural, well, then it’s nobody’s fault: not the corporations and banks who divested and certainly not the government, and these entities therefore don’t bear any particular responsibility to the communities and people affected.”

I think in the US and elsewhere, historically and today, a term like “Rust Belt” does a lot of ideological work to naturalise the idea of decline and reinforce a binary of declining and ascendant regions. Implicit in that is the idea that, again, decline is a product of neutral market forces—it is natural and inevitable, if perhaps unfortunate for people without the means to relocate to a place with a better economic climate. And if decline is natural, well, then it’s nobody’s fault: not the corporations and banks who divested and certainly not the government, and these entities therefore don’t bear any particular responsibility to the communities and people affected.

What does your research lead you to believe caused American cities to become politically divided in ways that led them to become test cases for pro-market and pro-developer policies?

“…U.S. urban history is in many ways history of raced, classed, and gendered conflicts over public space and public resources.”

Cities have always been politically divided in a host of ways, and privatist, pro-market/pro-developer policies aren’t particularly new. Sam Bass Warner, writing in 1968, dated privatism to America’s colonial period. Warner argued that cities were historically dependent on individual enterprise rather than community action; that US urban development was the outcome of profit-seeking developers, speculators, and investors; and that local politics were shaped foremost by private economic activities. But what happened in U.S. cities after 1945 was certainly an intensification or new iteration of Warner’s “private city.” At the risk of a historiographical oversimplification, U.S. urban history is in many ways history of raced, classed, and gendered conflicts over public space and public resources. So while I don’t think political divisions or the focus on the market were particularly new, I do think that in the late 20th century race and class divisions sharpened and, as federal urban renewal programs failed and the New Deal liberal project faltered, there was a growing dissatisfaction with “big government” and “big business” across the political spectrum. This created strange bedfellows, as historian Suleiman Osman has shown so well: liberals and libertarians and Black Power activists and blue-collar workers all advocated for community control in ways that laid the groundwork for federal retrenchment from urban development and opened the way for more market-driven solutions to urban problems.

Was there much resistance in the upper echelons of the political parties in US cities to the embrace of “pro-market”, pro-austerity” policies, or was the new direction broadly accepted?

“…like other recent political histories, the book points to a more complicated story about how political actors and social movements on the left and right… came to share the same sense of political possibilities.”

Well, that probably depends on the city. In Pittsburgh, they didn’t merely accept it, Democratic mayors actively pursued market-based policies and implemented austerity programs. One thing we see in the 1970s and 1980s is that Democratic mayors stopped thinking of the white working class as their base, and started thinking of entrepreneurs and corporate leaders as their most important citizens. But I want to be clear, too, that my research does not feed into a declension narrative of American political history, where liberalism collapses and conservatism becomes ascendant in the 1970s. Instead, like other recent political histories, the book points to a more complicated story about how political actors and social movements on the left and right—at both the local and national level, and across national borders—came to share the same sense of political possibilities.

Why did grassroots opposition to the increased finance and marketisation of American cities fail? Or alternatively why has its effects been “harsher” in some places rather than others?

“…residents did not organize against postindustrialism as a redevelopment strategy as they did against urban renewal, because postindustrialism was much harder to pin down.”

In the case of Pittsburgh, the kinds of groups that were likely to launch grassroots opposition to postindustrial redevelopment plans—historic preservation groups, civil rights organizations, neighborhood associations—had been co-opted by the city’s public-private partnership by the 1970s. Still, the lack of resistance to postindustrialism was surprising, because there had been so much resistance to urban renewal in Pittsburgh in the 1950s and 1960s; in fact, African American organizing against a renewal project in the city’s Hill District is one of the best-known examples of a successful protest against urban renewal. But even though federally sponsored urban renewal programs produced highly illiberal results, urban renewal was essentially a package of liberal social programs introduced to manage growth in an economic boom. Postindustrialism was instead a more varied and flexible set of tactics employed to manage decline during an economic crisis. This, I think, highlights an important difference between why we see more successful organizing against urban renewal than we do against postindustrial redevelopment models: because urban renewal was a clearly delineated set of government-funded programs that built housing and highways, opposition that initially formed around individual projects pretty quickly coalesced into a broader social movement against urban renewal as a redevelopment model. Postindustrialism, on the other hand, was more diffuse. It involved a broader range activities paid for by a more complex set of public and private funding sources. So, while there was certainly resistance to individual projects—say, a particular loft conversion, or a university hospital expansion—residents did not organize against postindustrialism as a redevelopment strategy as they did against urban renewal, because postindustrialism was much harder to pin down.


MusikAnimal, “Abandoned railroad tracks in Gantry Plaza State Park New York City”, accessed via WikiCommons

In addition to being contactable via the institutions with which she is affiliated, Tracy is on Twitter. For more urban historian profiles please see here. 

Sam Wetherell-University of California, Berkeley

“…the houses we live in, the routes we take to work, the buildings in which we buy our coffee and our shoes, were often built by planners and architects whose political assumptions and anthropological claims have long since been deemed to be defunct.”

For the latest in my series exploring urban historians at work today, I was lucky to be able to catch up Sam Wetherell (currently at UC Berkeley, soon to be at Columbia University). He explained how politics informs his approach to exploring and attempting to re-plot our understanding of urban Britain’s recent past and boldly grappled with one of most amorphous terms in contemporary social discourse: “neo-liberal”.

What is your background?

I spent my formative teenage years living in Milton Keynes. During this time I did most of my socialising in the town’s shopping mall (now branded “thecentre:mk”), attending a comprehensive school that was formally sponsored by Yahama keyboards and living in a high density apartment complex called (wait for it) “Enterprise Lane.” In other words I have lived every word of my dissertation on neo-liberal British cities!

I half-heartedly studied History at Oxford as an undergraduate, never really latching onto a topic that I loved. Afterwards I briefly worked for the Labour Party, before spending a year on a fellowship at Harvard. After another year spent in the wilderness, working at a second hand bookstore in Boston and then, later, for an unpleasant lobbying firm in the UK, I began my PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. I completed my dissertation this year and from next semester I’ll be working as a visiting lecturer in British history at Columbia University.

“…I have lived every word of my dissertation on neo-liberal British cities!”

What led you to choose your subject matter?

I decided that I wanted to be an academic long before I decided that I wanted to be an urban historian. I’d always loved ideas and loved writing but for a long time I couldn’t work out what I wanted to study. For me there were two stages to discovering what I wanted to write about. First, I took an American urban history graduate class at Harvard with Lizabeth Cohen, which exposed me, for the first time, to people such as Jane Jacobs, Margaret Crawford, Michel De Certeau, and Mike Davis – as well the fantastic historical literature on American postwar cities (including Thomas Sugrue’s work on Detroit and Robert Self’s works on Oakland). Living in London and in Boston I was exposed to large cities for the first time and (probably naively) associated them with freedom and adulthood.

“I’ve tried to maintain a political perspective in everything that I do…”

The second important stage for me was discovering left wing politics and activism in my early twenties. In 2011 I returned to the UK after a year and a half in America to find a Conservative government in power and a sense of generalized post-2008 crisis. I became involved in groups like UK Uncut and tried to teach myself as much about economics as possible. I’ve tried to maintain a political perspective in everything that I do and it was the wedding of this new interest in cities with a new investment in politics at this crucial juncture when I was applying for graduate schools that really determined my topic and informed my last five years of scholarship.

Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?

Like most graduate students/early career folks I’m left trying to carve out a theoretical niche on the back of a cannon of wonderful yet radically contradictory texts. In terms of urban history my go-to texts would be Carl Schorske’s essay on Vienna, William Cronin’s Nature’s Metropolis, Lizabeth Cohen’s work on New Deal Chicago, Doreen Massey’s For Space, Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s Disenchanted Night (the greatest history book ever written?), David Harvey’s work on Paris and of course the wonderful first few chapters of Engel’s Conditions of the Working Class in England. All of these say different things at different political and theoretical registers but all would be central to any class I would teach on urban history!

What do you hope that readers take away from your work?

“I’m endlessly struck by the capacity of the built environment to freeze political moments in space and project them forward.”

There’s that lovely line by John Maynard Keynes that we are all the slaves to some defunct economist. What I’d like to show in my work is how our daily lives unfold in cities and among buildings that were designed and built during times that are radically different to our own. That the houses we live in, the routes we take to work, the buildings in which we buy our coffee and our shoes, were often built by planners and architects whose political assumptions and anthropological claims have long since been deemed to be defunct. This seems obvious but I’m endlessly struck by the capacity of the built environment to freeze political moments in space and project them forward. What I love about the built environment is that it works at this meso level – between structure and agency and between high politics and spontaneous grass roots movements or individual instances of self-fashioning. Academically I hope my work allows people to periodise British history differently (escaping the endlessly rehearsed stories of 1945-51 and 1979-90). Politically I hope it offers an alternative (or at least supplementary) road map for political change – one that is isn’t trapped by the endless question of whether the left should throw its lot into the doomed process of winning un-winnable elections in a given nation state or the equally impossible challenge of forging a new hegemony or governmentality!

How has your work evolved over the course of your project?

“What I found while writing my dissertation… is that each of these case studies has a prehistory that stretches back well into the twentieth century, and sometimes beyond”

My dissertation is ostensibly about the transformation of the British built environment in the last third of the twentieth century, looking at five case studies (or “pilot zones” as I call them): the enterprise zone, the national garden festival, the housing estate, the shopping centre and the business park. What I found while writing my dissertation, however, is that each of these case studies has a prehistory that stretches back well into the twentieth century, and sometimes beyond, and in each chapter I found myself writing as much about the pre-history of these spaces as about their actual emergence.

I’m loathe to say exactly how I’m going to transform the dissertation into a book, just because I know it will change along the way, but at the moment I’m hoping to incorporate this prehistory and extend the thesis into a book about British cities from the late nineteenth century to the present. In the book I want to ask how we get from the individual home/house to the vast modernist housing estate to the private gated community. Next I want to ask how you get from the individual factory enterprise to the government managed trading estate to the private, suburban business park. Finally I want to trace the development of the unplanned sprawling high street to the state-planned shopping precinct to the private, out of town megamall.

On a very general note: how have you found the experience of studying British history through a university in the USA?

I have absolutely loved my time at Berkeley, to the point where people no longer let me talk to new admits who are considering coming (because I seem too optimistic and happy – and in America that’s saying something!). While the idea of flying across the world to study the place that you set out from seemed mad (and still seems a little mad) I think there is a lot to be said for studying Britain at a distance. Almost all of my friends or colleagues know almost nothing about Britain, so you have to think on a large, global scale to make your work relevant. Furthermore you are forced to study, teach and read hundreds of books, not just  just about all of British history since 1688, but also a second field (in my case US history since European contact) too.

“…there is a lot to be said for studying Britain at a distance…you have to think on a large, global scale…”

There are definitely downsides too of course. Being forced to think big means you lose a lot of detail and sometimes end up getting excited about claims that are frustratingly self-evident to those working in Britain. I always love going to conferences and meeting other British historians working on cities and being amazed by the detail of their knowledge and how their work is made immediate and relevant by being immersed in the world that they are historicizing. Also, while the three-year programs in Britain (compared with the six-year programs in the US) feel rushed, you come out of it younger and fresher and with the job market being what it is, doing a 3 year UK PhD is less of a risk!

What alternatives were there to the “neo-liberal” city in the 1970s and 1980s and why did these alternatives fail?

This question cuts to the heart of the ceaselessly awful issue of how one defines neoliberalism. Is neoliberalism a set of policies implemented by governments in the 1970s and 80s? Or is it a hegemony or a rationality or even an epoch (like the Late Medieval period)? I think the term can be used productively to mean all of these things as long as we are clear what we mean each time we use it. I think a lot of the best theorists of neoliberalism (Michel Foucault, Stuart Hall, Wendy Brown, Pierre Dardot) would take the latter of those two definitions, and would answer your question by arguing that neoliberalism left almost no ideological room for constructing alternatives. If neoliberalism is a rationality, or a set of claims about the world that have become commonsensical, then it’s a difficult thing to oppose, act outside of and construct alternatives to.

“I think many people who are (rightly) critical of British cities today look back on this moment as a time of decent, affordable public housing, subsidized municipal transport networks, unregulated public space etc… etc… and see it as a workable alternative to the present. I’m less sure.”

For this reason I might rephrase your question to ask what the alternatives were to the privatization and securitization of space and infrastructure, and the re-orientation of cities as engines for attracting global capital and rather than providing services. The clearest alternative to this was the built environment that emerged out of late nineteenth century liberal reform and twentieth century social democracy, in other words the built forms that were transformed and re-negotiated in the late twentieth century. I think many people who are (rightly) critical of British cities today look back on this moment as a time of decent, affordable public housing, subsidized municipal transport networks, unregulated public space etc… etc… and see it as a workable alternative to the present. I’m less sure. While our present cities are a disaster, we also know that the British social democratic experiment was deeply flawed. Economically it was predicated on US Cold War spending and the residues of an increasingly repressive imperial world system. It was paternalistic and at times inhumane, a terrible place to be a woman or a person of colour. Its survival depended on an international monetary system that no longer exists. While, in the 1980s, the alternative to the neo-liberal city may have been tower blocks, trading estates, and a nationalized train network, the left now needs a bolder, more globally orientated vision. This is something Stuart Hall was arguing 30 years ago in the Hard Road to Renewal.

“One of the things I learned writing this dissertation was the extent to which the urban forms developed in the heyday of state planning went on to structure or thwart the late twentieth century city.”

I would also challenge the idea that the mid century British city “failed” as an alternative model. One of the things I learned writing this dissertation was the extent to which the urban forms developed in the heyday of state planning went on to structure or thwart the late twentieth century city. Local authorities struggled (and often failed) to price and sell individual council flats on estates, for example, because they were plugged into comprehensive, holistically planned worlds. Meanwhile the first shopping centres in Britain were state-run affairs in towns like Coventry, built to try and re-centre British cities around ideals of public space and assembly. In this sense, rather than “failing”, the social democratic city was sublimated, reconstituted and repressed.

For more about Sam and his work check out his UC Berkeley Department of History profile page and his profile, he can also be contacted through Twitter. For more urban historian profiles see here.

20110803 Coventry Cathedral Tower West Panoramic View [Pano4] Original

Coventry Cathedral Tower panormamic views, taken on 3rd August by Si (User:mintchociecream). This version released into the public domina via Wikicommons on 25 Aug 2011. West view-towards Broadgate

“Global Urban History”, Freie Universität Berlin, a discussion with Michael Goebel

“…we began to start thinking about ways to combine our interest in the history of long-distance connections, European colonialism overseas, and urban history.”

For the latest in my series on urban historians at work today, I was very lucky to be able to catch up with Michael Goebel, of Freie Universität Berlin; the  who edits and writes for the Global Urban History blog.

What is your background?

I grew up in Munich, Germany, and went to a secondary school right next to the city’s central station. So, although Munich is not huge, I come from a pretty urban environment and have never been much of a country person. But I’m not an urban historian by training. I did my PhD in history at University College London, with a thesis on the intellectual history of nationalism in postcolonial Argentina, so modern Latin America was my broader region of specialization. There were two distinct paths of how this has stirred my interest in urban history. First, whoever studies nationalism in Argentina cannot do without considering two factors: the importance of the country’s capital city (economically, culturally, politically, but also for the national imagination) and the history of European immigration, for which Buenos Aires again has always been the chief point of entry. Second, modern intellectual historians are almost always urban historians in one way or another, though usually without knowing or admitting it. And my interest in the intellectual history of Latin America eventually took me to study early twentieth-century Paris as a sort of cultural capital of Latin America. 

These two paths flowed together in my book Anti-Imperial Metropolis, which came out last year. The book eventually concentrated much more on immigrants to Paris from French colonies such as Algeria than on Latin Americans, but it brings together the social history of migration with an intellectual history of the roots of nationalism in Africa and Asia. These concerns also led me to look in more detail at the Parisian cityscape, the everyday social fabric of non-Europeans there, and their settlement patterns. In the course of this research I have grown more interested in the history of ethnic segregation in cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, in particular in world regions outside the North Atlantic, for which there has been much less research so far. So in hindsight there were a few unforeseeable twists that took me where I am now.

What led you to decide to set up Global Urban History?

“…we noticed that urban history… has perhaps been shaped more profoundly by European and North American categories and continues to focus… on North Atlantic examples than other quarters of historical writing.”

Again, this comes out of a confluence of several factors. My first idea stemmed from this interest in the global history of ethnic segregation on which I had also taught a course in our MA in Global History here at the Freie Universität Berlin. Given the changes that digitisation has wrought on our discipline in recent years a topic such as ethnic segregation in cities seemed especially apt for the blog format, which is much more flexible, visual, and digital than our traditional ways of presenting our research. It’s also a topic of great concern for the public in Germany, Britain, the USA, and other countries at the moment. But it’s too narrow a concern for a blog with a hopefully wider readership. So I teamed up with a few great colleagues in urban history such as Joseph Ben Prestel and Antonio Carbone, who I was lucky enough to find in my immediate surroundings here in Berlin. With them involved the blog quickly expanded topically.

Since we all work in the area of global history, we began to start thinking about ways to combine our interest in the history of long-distance connections, European colonialism overseas, and urban history. At the same time, we noticed that urban history as an established field has perhaps been shaped more profoundly by European and North American categories and continues to focus more frequently on North Atlantic examples than other quarters of historical writing. This realization mutated into a sort of embryonic mission statement encouraging our readers to think more explicitly about how global history and urban history have related to one another in the past and should communicate in the future.

What do you hope that readers get from the blog?

“…we hope that our readers get both, entertaining and interesting posts that inform about recent scholarship, but also a broader theoretical and methodological discussion.”

Ours is a pretty academic, i.e. not so journalistic or personal, blog. We first took other blogs, such as the Imperial & Global Forum based at the University of Exeter and the one of the Journal of the History of Ideas, as models to emulate. Accordingly, I suspect that our readership consists largely of academics, in particular historians, mostly based in Germany, the UK, and the United States. Yet some successful posts, such as one on colonial Mexico City, also attracted readers beyond academics in these countries. It’s not easy to strike a balance here between general accessibility, interest, and scholarly specialization.

In accordance with our initial ideas we hoped to attract a great deal of sophisticated theoretical and programmatic reasoning about what we saw as the missing link between urban and global history, presented in accessible language and adorned with fancy pictures. Then the nitty-gritty of everyday management kicked in. If you have a blog with no or very few followers, yet hope to get brilliant and famous people on a terribly busy schedule writing for you, there is a mismatch in what you are asking and what you can offer. So in the first place you have to position your blog as a platform for the dissemination of the research of your contributors. Then, if you call yourself global, you want to cover different world regions once in a while, but you also want both male and female authors, senior academics and PhD students. If you take into account all of these factors, you run the risk of becoming what from the outside looks like a random cabinet of curiosities about aspects of the history of particular cities spread over the globe; a little bit like The Guardian’s series on the “Story of Cities,” which of course generates much more traffic than our little site.

At its best, this sensitizes our readers to the huge global variations in the urban experience. And we do hope that our readers get this from our blog. But this doesn’t amount to generating a programmatic discussion about where and how global and urban history should intersect. So we decided to flank this format of presenting contributors’ empirical research with a few other formats, such as book reviews and, soon to come, a conversation between leading urban historians about their relationship with global history. In the medium term, we hope that our readers get both, entertaining and interesting posts that inform about recent scholarship, but also a broader theoretical and methodological discussion.

What would you say are the key scholarly benefits of taking a global approach to studying urban history?

“the North Atlantic was furthest ahead in terms of urbanization… in the decades before and after 1900… the period when history as an academic discipline emerged. This coincidence in my view shapes urban history to this day in that the field has a heavy focus on the North Atlantic.”

This question can be approached from the angle of urban history and from the angle of global history. Beginning with the first, one reason of why urban history is important is that an ever growing proportion of the world population lives in cities. Historically, people saw Europe and North America as the most urbanized regions of the world, where the great cities were located. Think of London and New York. In truth the North Atlantic was furthest ahead in terms of urbanization mainly in the decades before and after 1900. Yet this was also the period when history as an academic discipline emerged. This coincidence in my view shapes urban history to this day in that the field has a heavy focus on the North Atlantic.

Fast forward a century and most of today’s megacities are located in the Global South, a trend that will no doubt continue. This realization should really push urban historians to rethink how useful their conceptual tools are for studying the histories of, say, Manila or Lagos, which are different from that of Paris. I don’t think this discussion is as prominent in urban history as it should be. The same is true if you turn the tables: Many good urban historians of course, have always been aware that London and Liverpool would be unthinkable without the British Empire, but I don’t think this realization has had the effect of explicit and systematic reasoning about the role of the global in urban history that it should have.

Now if you approach the question from the opposite side, I also believe that global history could benefit from a closer look at cities. As Frederick Cooper, a historian of Africa, stresses, the history of global connections never proceeded evenly through geographic space, but was “lumpy.” That means some places on earth have much denser long-distance connections than others—port cities being the obvious case, to which a project at the University of Portsmouth is devoted. Global historians have been good at drawing attention to connections, but in doing so they are tempted to “overuse the network metaphor,” as the Princeton historian David Bell has complained. Grounding their empirical work in specific places such as cities can work as an antidote to this problem. It helps to make their work more tangible and testable. Looking in detail at the local nodal points of long-distance connections of the past may actually also tell us something new about the nature of historic globalization.

Finally, global history has a bit of a bias against social history in my opinion. This has to do with the biography of global history, which was midwifed by a generation of historians who reacted against the generation of social historians of the 1960s and their characteristic belief in large sets of serial data and “modernization. To an extent, urban history is a child of this social history of the 1960s, in which urbanization was considered a key ingredient of “modernization.” I think the fact that urban history and global history developed out of synch has generated a certain mutual mistrust that we should work to overcome.

“I also believe that global history could benefit from a closer look at cities.”

What would you say are the current key trends in the study of global urban history?

Global history per se has been the fastest expanding subfield of history during the last two decades, I think. Whereas fourteen years ago, when I began my PhD, I was under pressure to justify my decision to study Argentina as a German in the UK, today the onus is on those studying their own country’s past to uphold what they are doing—to a silly extent at times, I believe, when I see quite how apologetic today’s historians are if they don’t have “global” or “transnational” in their working titles. But for better or worse, urban historians have not remained unaffected by this trend, even if this is one of the more Eurocentric (or North Atlantic-centered) part of historical writing.

From what I can see, these broader trends have so far taken mostly the form of an expansion of research on cities in what today is called the Global South. I think of the work of Tim Harper, Su Lin Lewis, Carole Woodall, Emer O’Dwyer, and many others I can’t mention here. These are also the kind of people we admire and seek to approach for our blog.

Tellingly, however, in my impression most such historians do not present themselves as “urban historians in the first place. Instead they first recur to other labels to describe their work, geographic ones in particular, such as global history, Southeast Asian history, colonial history, or whatever their specialization may be precisely. There are exceptions to this rule, to be sure. Leicester University’s Centre for Urban History now produces more and more research on the history of cities in the Global South, while avowedly maintaining the label “urban history.” Carl Nightingale’s book on the global history of urban segregation would be another example. So there are exciting developments if you look for them, but on the whole I would argue that they are still too exceptional.

Is there any advice that you have for historians looking to work collaboratively across countries?

To have time at their hands and never underestimate the importance of language. For our blog—and many other projects we are involved in—it is nowadays commonplace to work with people in other countries. In my particular case, my academic upbringing was mostly outside of Germany anyway, having done a PhD about Argentina in the U.K. before going to Italy and spending a year in the US. But it’s all too easy to underestimate the real challenges in cross-national cooperation and language has everything to do with this. In choosing to produce an English-language blog in Germany, we also chose to lose potential German readers outside of academia. We will never attract many readers in Latin America. If I look at our followers on Twitter, the overwhelming majority are based in Britain and the US.

“…it’s all too easy to underestimate the real challenges in cross-national cooperation and language has everything to do with this.”

Conversely, it is difficult to find contributors outside of Anglophone academia. History is a literary discipline and a blog is the kind of format where you want to upload something that also sounds nice, so the level of English of potential contributors is something we constantly discuss among the editors, especially bearing in mind our own time constraints in proofreading. In history, national—or linguistically specific—markets also continue to shape the conceptual concerns and interests that scholars bring along, making it much harder to convey our approach and goals outside the core areas of our readership. On the other hand, if all your contributors and readers are in Germany, the UK, and the USA we really shouldn’t call this “global.” So we really try hard to keep an open mind for influences from beyond the English-speaking world, which is something global history should heed more generally given its tendency towards increasing monolingualism.

Is there any advice that you have for academics looking to create a blog like Global Urban History?

In my impression there are lots of people with great ideas, but the main danger for creating a new blog is that it becomes a flash in the pan. We were all enthusiastic in the beginning—and still are—but the everyday maintenance of the whole structure is arduous. On top of that we all have teaching and admin duties and we pursue our actual research, which means going to archives, reading other historians, and writing journal articles and books. So if you want to create a blog that lasts for a year or so and is meant to be read by a few more people than your closest friends, ask yourself how many hours per week you are able and willing to invest in the coming twelve months.

Horacio Coppola - Buenos Aires 1936 - Corrientes desde el edificio COMEGA nocturna.jpg

Horacio CoppolaCÓPPOLA, H., PREBISCH, A. y ANZOÁTEGUI, I.: Buenos Aires 1936: visión fotográfica por Horacio Coppola, Buenos Aires, Municipalidad de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, 1936 (editado en ocasión del cuarto centenario de la fundación de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, 1536-1936)

You can find out more about Michael Goebel, of Global Urban History; and his work from his page on the Freie Universität Berlin website. He is on Twitter as are his co-editors Joseph Ben Prestel and Antonio Carbone . If you’d like to read more urban history profiles, please follow the link here.