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1986 – Chernobyl

23/03/2015

26 April 1986 – Pripyat

The Chernobyl Disaster is one of those iconic events that has permeated into many aspects of our society. While it certainly wasn’t the first nuclear disaster (or, indeed, the last), it occurred at a time in which its political, environmental and cultural effects were amplified. Chernobyl, now a byword for catastrophe, has had a lasting impact upon the last three decades. And so, here it is at number 2 in the 30-for-30.

Homer, your bravery and quick thinking have turned a potential Chernobyl into a mere Three-Mile Island. Bravo!

Montgomery C. Burns, The Simpsons, 5 November 1995

The Simpsons plays on the caricature of nuclear power. It is simultaneously the economic centre of Springfield and - on more than one occasion - a potential cause of Armageddon...

The Simpsons plays on the caricature of nuclear power. It is simultaneously the economic centre of Springfield and – on more than one occasion – a potential cause of Armageddon…

As with most historical events, the more fascinating aspects of Chernobyl are not the scientific facts, but the way it came to be represented and reconstructed by various people. However, the reality of how the plant came to its demise is intriguing. One might be forgiven for thinking that Pripyat – the abandoned Ukrainian city in which Chernobyl was built – can never be visited. That a massive mushroom cloud billowed above, leaving a massive crater below. That the local fish have three eyes, and that anyone not disintegrated by the blast died soon after from horrific radiation burns. Much like the monsters of the early-modern period, though, the myth of Chernobyl is built on elements of truth that have been exaggerated and reinforced in the popular imagination.

Panaroma of Pripyat, the city built to house the workers at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. (Source)

Panaroma of Pripyat, the city built to house the workers at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. (Source)

First, the plant did not explode like a Hiroshima-style A-bomb. A power surge, combined with poor safety procedures, produced a fire within one of the reactors.1 This then caused a chemical explosion (it’s not a good idea to expose graphite to fire), which created a cloud of radioactive ash. As a direct result of the explosion, two workers died. A further 28 died within three months as a result of the rescue and containment operation. The prevailing winds meant that much of the fallout landed in the nearby republics of Belarus and Russia rather than in the Ukraine itself. While this has significantly raised the risk of cancer in these areas,2 the wider region is still inhabited and, while far from ideal, it is safe enough for people to live there.3. Indeed, while Pripyat and the immediate environs are restricted and abandoned, it is still possible to visit the city. You could even drive through it, if you were so inclined…

This is not, of course, to downplay the scale of the disaster. It was incredibly expensive. Pripyat will remain uninhabited for 20,000 years. And there are not only significant levels of cancer in Ukraine and Belarus; lives were irreparably disrupted by the relocation of 50,000 citizens from the city. But Chernobyl was never the comic-book Apocalypse that it appears to be portrayed as. So. Why does this myth keep repeating?

First, the most boring explanation. It’s a good story. The idea of a far-flung place, nuclear explosions, mutant trees and radioactivity. These are the stuff of science fiction and play into fears of engineers playing God. They’ve been around for a long time. The Hulk and Spider-Man both debuted in 1962. That same year, the Cuban Missile Crisis (allegedly) brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation. The word “nuclear” is iconic. Mix it in with “explosion” and “Russia” (because all of the USSR was “Russia”), and you’ve got yourself a blockbuster.

Which brings us onto perhaps the most important aspect. The Cold War. Not only did the late-Cold War setting allow the West to use Chernobyl as a sign of Soviet incompetence4 – an almost literal metaphor of how the country was falling apart – it also led to major problems dealing with the aftermath. When the USSR disintegrated in the 1990s, responsibility was spread between the Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian governments. Consequently, there remain serious social and political problems along the Dneiper river.5 This has served as a constant reminder of the long-term effects of nuclear power if it goes wrong. This food for the anti-nuclear lobby and, in turn, keeps Chernobyl in the public consciousness. For others, Chernobyl must be held up as the exception, caused by incompetence. Nuclear power is such an important part of many Western countries’ energy infrastructure that all fear must be projected onto Chernobyl and focused away from the potential disasters closer to home.6 Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Western experts sought to improve safety standards in the East as a way of enforcing their own professional power and to show to the world that nuclear was safe when “done properly”.7

When the Fukushima plant went into meltdown following the 2011 earthquake in Japan, comparisons were immediately drawn.8 But this hasn’t captured the imagination in the same way. At the time, there was a great deal of speculation, fuelled again by the “disaster movie” narrative being spun by the rolling news media. Yet the limited fallout and the relatively swift response appear to have nipped it in the bud. It probably helps that Japan is “one of us” – a technologically advanced capitalist nation. Thus, despite being the only other “level 7″ nuclear accident, Fukushima is not talked about in the same tones as Chernobyl.

The disaster is one of the most iconic events of the last thirty years. It simultaneously seems to be blown completely out of proportion as a cartoonish Apocalypse; and underplayed as a long-term catastrophe outside of the city of Pripyat itself. With the political situations in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine currently unstable, it is clear that Chernobyl is not over – and the management of the aftermath continues to be a concern. For these reasons, Chernobyl is the entry for 1986.

  1. Marples argues that the disaster was as a direct result of complacency on behalf of the nuclear industry in the USSR in the 1970s and 1980s. See David R. Marples, ‘The Chernobyl Disaster’ in Current History 86(522) (1987), 325-43.
  2. Adriana Petryna, ‘Biological citizenship: The science and politics of Chernobyl-exposed populations’ in Osiris 19 (2004), 250-65.
  3. International Atomic Energy Agency, Chernobyl +15: Frequently Asked Chernobyl Questions (undated, but presumably c. April 2001) < http://web.archive.org/web/20031220213501/http://www.iaea.org/NewsCenter/Features/Chernobyl-15/cherno-faq.shtml > (captured by The Internet Archive, 2 December 2003) (accessed 3 February 2015)
  4. Nicky Falkoff, ‘Heroes with a Half Life: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and American repression of radiophobia after Chernobyl’ in The Journal of Popular Culture 46(5) (2013), 931-49.
  5. BBC News, ‘Belarus cursed by Chernobyl’ (26 April 2005) < http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/4485003.stm > (accessed 3 February 2015); Petryna, ‘Biological citizens’.
  6. Falkoff, ‘Heroes with a Half Life’.
  7. Thomas R. Wellock, ‘The children of Chernobyl: Engineers and the campaign for safety in Soviet-designed reactors in Central and Eastern Europe’ in History & Technology 29(1) (2013), 3-32.
  8. BBC News, ‘How does Fukushima differ from Chernobyl?’ (16 December 2011) < http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13050228 > (accessed 3 February 2015).
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1985 – WrestleMania

16/03/2015

31 March 1985 – New York City

This was the moment that the modern version of professional wrestling – cartoon characters, big venues, loud music, pyrotechnics and Spandex went global. Or, at least, Vincent McMahon Jr’s version of it. But despite a relative decline in popularity over recent years, the idea of “predetermined” or “choreographed” fighting, closely associated with the Greco-Roman wrestling seen in the Olympics, has a deep cultural history across Britain and America. It is with this flimsy excuse I open this series with Wrestlemania.

I’m often met with incredulity from work colleagues when I tell them about what I spend my free time doing. Playing computer games. Catching up on TV. Going to the cinema. And watching professional wrestling.

“You do know it’s fake, right?”

Big Daddy, World of Sport

Big Daddy (in white) and Giant Haystacks, two of the biggest stars of British wrestling in the 1970s and 1980s. (Source)

Of course, “fake” is a relative term.1. While the outcome is predetermined and the story lines are acted, they are played as if real (“kayfabe” in wrestling lingo). Much like any dramatic art form. But while the strikes, flips, spins and throws are often performed in such a way to minimise the damage done to the performers (whilst making it look like they are beating the proverbial out of each other) the risks being taken are very real.2

I could write an entire book on why professional wrestling is the best thing ever (despite the casual racism, misogyny, homophobia, drug use, questionable morality, politics, occasional contempt for its audience, lack of safety and security for its performers…). What I want to argue is that wrestling, like sport in general, has been an important part of working class culture around the world. Indeed, the way it plays on tropes within society, and the fact that it is a “fake” sport, is entirely the point.

Cribb v Molineux from 1811. (Source)

Cribb v Molineux from 1811. (Source)

Professional wrestling developed alongside professional sport during the industrial revolution. Forms of martial arts such as boxing, Greco-Roman style wrestling, and so forth had become popular attractions and carnivals and fairs. As permanent structures were built to house the “music hall” variety acts (“Vaudeville” in the United States), various forms of football, pedestrianism (forerunner of track and field), and so on, a need grew for star attractions on a regular basis. The nature of fighting, however, is that competitors can only perform once every month or so. Injuries and fatigue build up. Moreover, the most accomplished boxer is not necessarily the most charismatic. As far as the business is concerned, the only good fighter is the one who can “draw” – bring people into the arena to buy tickets.3

The narrative power of sport was popular and profitable. While “legitimate” competition continued to grow, it was clear that not every soccer game was great to watch. Not every boxing bout went the distance (some were over in a few seconds); others were long turgid draws. One way to ensure entertaining events was, therefore, to add the drama of sport without the audience becoming incredulous. Wrestling, more prone than other sports to technically impressive but largely dull affairs, could be extended if the charismatic star was able to deliberately “go easy” on his opponent and extend the contest. Or a foreign star could burst into the auditorium and demand a fight at the end of the night. This would encourage people to come back next week, and allowed the audience to cheer on their local hero against the evil outsider.

Professional wrestling gradually incorporated more and more of these elements. Wrestlers took on characters – or “gimmicks” – to make themselves more attractive. They began performing more spectacular moves, like jumping off ropes and performing flips. These had little impact on their ability to legitimately win a contest, but entertained crowds. To allow them to move from town to town, fighting every night, the winners began to be predetermined, with the “workers” being more gentle with each other to avoid injury and fatigue. Feuds were manufactured to give a reason for people to fight and for an audience to continue to buy tickets. By the 1950s this had become a well-recognised form of entertainment in Britain and the United States, fuelled in the latter case by local TV stations looking for cheap content.4

Blue Demon and El Santo, two of the "big three" luchadores (along with Mil Mascaras), who popularised the lucha libre style of wrestling in Mexico and Latin America. (Source)

Blue Demon and El Santo, two of the “big three” luchadores (along with Mil Mascaras), who popularised the lucha libre style of wrestling in Mexico and Latin America.
(Source)

While professional wrestling spread across the world, each country adapted the concept to their own local attitudes towards sport. In the United States, the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) became the most popular “promotion” based on larger-than-life characters, and a Hollywood-esque soap opera approach to storytelling. In Britain, fights were based around more-technical holds, and television presented the contests in the same way it would broadcast “legit” sports. In Mexico, the culture of masks and bright costumes was married to high-flying, fast-paced gymnastic moves. The Japanese developed a style which looked and felt more realistic, in some cases putting wrestlers in real – “shoot” – fights similar to modern-day mixed martial arts. This reflected the origins of wrestling in the country – imported by the United States after the Second World War as a replacement for competitive sport, which was banned.5 Australia, Germany and South Africa (among others) put their own spin on it.

"Macho Man" Randy Savage, one of the most recognisable wrestlers of the 1980s.  (Source)

“Macho Man” Randy Savage, one of the most recognisable wrestlers of the 1980s. (Source)

Because of this set up, most of the biggest stars the “sport” has produced have tapped into the cultural Zeitgeist. Sgt. Slaughter, for example, became WWF champion in the early 1990s after he abandoned his country (kayfabe, darlings) to support Saddam Hussein at the height of the Gulf War.6 Randy Savage was a charismatic “Macho Man” with over-the-top colourful outfits that sum up the 1980s to a tee. Hulk Hogan did it even better, going on to star in multiple (awful) movies. The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin were rowdy anti-heroes during the “edgy” 1990s. At the same time, plenty of wrestlers of colour have found themselves on the losing side more often than not; women were often given very stereotypical gimmicks to work with.7 The Hispanic “Los Guerreros” would ‘lie cheat and steal’. And the less said about the tradition of “midget wrestling” the better.

But this isn’t about the issues with pro wrestling. Like any art form, it reflects the climate of the time. If wrestling is sexist and racist, it’s because it exists as a warped, cartoonish version of reality. If people find its depiction of competition and success distasteful, that is because it reflects our society; one only has to see the sport analogies used by politicians to see that sport, entertainment and politics all borrow from each other on a regular basis.

Anyway. Why does Wrestlemania matter? Well, it began the slow breakdown of the structures which had held up pro wrestling across the world. In many cases, it shows the power of globalisation.

With so many different styles, why is it the WWF’s product that people generally associate with ‘rasslin? Primarily it’s because of the success of Wrestlemania and Vince McMahon Junior’s attempts to make his company an international enterprise. In the 1970s, the wrestling world was split into “territories”. The National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) maintained an international system in which promotions would not actively compete in each other’s geographical area. Even those companies that were not part of the NWA (such as McMahon’s WWF in New York, or Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association in Minneapolis) understood that this cartel was good for business. Wrestling was massive on international television, but very much localised. The UK would cheer on Big Daddy on World of Sport; New York would idolise the WWF’s Bruno Sammartino; Memphis loved Jerry Lawler. If a wrestler – usually a “villain” – became stale, he could go and work in another area as an unknown (or, perhaps, with a mythical reputation). Within the United States, however, different areas had different emphases. Some were more hard-hitting; some focused more on storytelling; others went more for athleticism. Regardless, the WWF was not wrestling sin qua non.

McMahon Junior bought the WWF from his father in the early 1980s, and planned to take the promotion onto national television. The rise of cable, coupled with new formats for “pay-per-view” events opened up the possibility of marketing the WWF well beyond New York and New England in a cost-effective way. Against McMahon’s Senior’s wishes, Junior got his television show on cable across the country, and began signing the biggest stars from other companies (in flagrant violation of the NWA “gentlemen’s agreement”).

Wrestlemania was a massive gamble. McMahon spent big on luring Hulk Hogan away from the AWA in 1983 in preparation, building the company around his star power. Then he invested in hiring venues to show ‘Mania through “closed-circuit television”, and brought in Cyndi Lauper and Mr T as celebrity guests. It was a runaway success, leading eventually to international expansion.

The poster for Wrestlemania. Vince McMahon's financial gamble paid off and eventually led to global expansion. (Source)

The poster for Wrestlemania. Vince McMahon’s financial gamble paid off and eventually led to global expansion. (Source)

Unable to compete with the production values and celebrity of the expanded WWF, many of the local promotions went into terminal decline. The loss of their best draws to New York didn’t help. World of Sport in the UK went off the air, and replacement shows quickly lost ground to the glitzier and more bombastic McMahon product. By the mid-90s, only World Championship Wrestling (WCW) could seriously compete in the USA, with Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) offering a more low-fi alternative. Japan and Mexico maintained their traditions, but in the latter case stars such as Rey Misterio Jr. and Juventud Guerrera moved north of the border for greater exposure and a bigger pay cheque. Shortly after the millennium, WCW and ECW went bankrupt having overstretched their resources competing with WWF.

McMahon’s vision of wrestling had won. It is still by far the most popular version of wrestling across the world. And while local variations continue to exist, the globalisation of the WWF product reflects many changes in the global economy. Everyone has their own version of the hamburger, but the Big Mac is still the most recognisable. The WWF was very 80s. And it’s kept me entertained ever since. That’s why I had to include it as the first entry in 30 for 30.

  1. Isn’t everything to historians…
  2. Chuck Austin, for example, landed on his neck after a move went wrong, paralysing him. He successfully sued the World Wrestling Federation for damages. For this and others, see ‘Worst botched moves in history’, Adam’s Wrestling Blog (19 June 2012) < http://adamswrestling.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/worst-botched-moves-in-history.html > (accessed 2 March 2015).
  3. For an overview of this from an academic perspective, see the work of Benjamin Litherland at Huddersfield. < http://www.hud.ac.uk/ourstaff/profile/index.php?staffuid=smusbl > (accessed 2 March 2015).
  4. See the story of the first big TV star: ‘Gorgeous George’, Wikipedia < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gorgeous_George > (accessed 2 March 2015).
  5. The Allies wanted to destroy the culture of Japanese imperialism, and competitive sport was considered part of this. “Puroresu” helped fill the void and kept sport stadiums full during the 1940s. See ‘Puroresu’, Wikipedia < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puroresu > (accessed 2 March 2015).
  6. It might be a stretch to call Slaughter one of ‘the biggest stars’…
  7. Dion Beary, ‘Pro wrestling is fake, but its race problem isn’t’, The Atlantic (10 July 2014, 8.00am EST) < http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/07/the-not-so-fictional-bias-in-the-wwe-world-championship/374042/ > (accessed 2 March 2015).
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30-for-30: Introduction

09/03/2015

I turn 30 this year. Which is a round number. So it means something.

Since I needed some motivation to write some history, I thought I would steal an old idea from ESPN: produce thirty pieces of history for the thirty years I have existed. Starting with 1985 and ending in 2014, I’ll be writing one post a week on something that happened in those particular years.

It’s going to be a mix of topics, using academic history alongside personal interpretations and other media. For each year, the subject reflects something that has changed with world I live in. It won’t necessarily be the most important event of that year, but its impact will be something still felt today. As the posts go on, of course, history will blur with journalism. But that just gives people more to argue about.

“1985” will be released next week. Topics will include sport, television, terrorism, communism, globalisation, nuclear explosions, science, public health, evolution, vaccination, Catholicism and civil rights.

In doing the research for this, it’s clear that historians will write about pretty much anything, and get it accepted into academic journals. I’ve learnt quite a lot about how events have shaped the popular history of the 1980s and 1990s. If, for any subject, you find related work that I’ve skipped over, do forward it on. Once this series is over, I plan to do a follow up piece summing up the past three decades.

Enjoy!

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What is history?

22/10/2014

E.H. Carr covered this a while back. So there’s no need for an extended essay. However, The Internet linked me to an interesting piece in New York about the perils of predicting how the present will sit in the history of the future.

The fact is that we can’t write history while we’re in it — not even that first draft of history that journalists aspire to write. While 2014 may have a shot at eternal infamy, our myopia and narcissism encourage us to discount the possibility that this year could be merely an inconsequential speed bump on the way to some greater catastrophe or unexpected nirvana. This was brought home to me when, in a quest for both a distraction from and a perspective on our current run of dreadful news, I revisited 1964, the vintage American year that has been serving as an unofficial foil, if not antidote, to 2014.

Frank Rich, ‘Nothing you think matters today will matter the same way tomorrow‘, New York, 21 October 2014, 8.00am EST (accessed 22 October 2014, 10.40am BST).

Immediately, a couple of things jump out. The first being that “we can’t write history while we’re in it”. The author, Frank Rich, might have a point here. However, there’s a question over when history ends and the present begins. There’s a strong case to be made that what happened this morning is already in the past, and therefore the realm of history. My own work falls into the domain of “Contemporary History”, which can often include analyses that take into account events yet to play out.

Second, the idea of an “inconsequential speed bump”. Is history “one fucking thing after another”? A series of events, marking the ebb and flow of human evolution? While steering away from the word that makes historians go into anaphylactic shock – progress1- there is a tacit idea that history is somehow the story of how we got from A to B; how some things got better and other things got worse; but ultimately it’s the story of how things that exist today came to be. That isn’t, necessarily, how historians approach their subject. Change over time is often an important concept in giving meaning and context to our work, but we often write about things and people that don’t exist today. Or if some remnant of them does, we make it very explicit that the “feminism” of the 1890s was a very different beast to the one of the 1990s – and that to attempt to trace a hard lineage from one to the other would be to impose presentist values of what “feminism” “really” “is”.2

Ultimately, this is the point we definitely agree on. It is certainly difficult to “write history while we’re in it”. History relies on context. It is the contextualisation of the past which allows us to even begin to understand events and the lives of people who lived there. That context might include what happened before and what would happen after – but this is not always so. Sometimes it will require greater understanding of the cultural, social and political situation and how it may have impacted upon our subject matter. Sometimes it will require rejecting presentist labels and attempting to redefine certain concepts using the values of those who would have understood them at the time.3 These things are incredibly hard to do when one has an incomplete set of sources (the events haven’t finished yet), or one is far to close to the subject matter at hand to be able to take a step back and reinterpret this history with a different conceptual framework.

As the piece shows, reading back to the 1960s to try and explain the present’s exceptionalism (in this case, how exceptionally bad today is), is just terrible history. It has to ignore so much of the context of the time that it risks painting an unrealistic picture of our society. Unfortunately, it is a common reaction to troubling times. The rise of UKIP in Britain has relied upon nostalgic visions of a past society in which England benignly ruled the Commonwealth, marriages lasted forever, and people knew their roles in life. This was never the case. Any historian of the nineteenth or twentieth centuries – and in that I include “anyone who has read a book” – can tell you what twaddle this vision is. But it resonates as an easy explanation for the supposed problems of the present, and a template for a better future. That we lack the tools as a society to question it says a lot about the state of history education in this country. We might teach kids facts, but we’re certainly not teaching them how to weight and evaluate evidence. I believe scientists are having a similar whinge right now.

At the same time, we shouldn’t be afraid about beginning to write histories of the present. Our problems usually stem from trying to “predict the future” or placing today in the grand chronology of stuff what happened. By using historical context to place some of the trends, events and people of the recent past within a larger explanatory framework of human activity, we’re just doing our jobs. And showing how today is just as historically constructed as the past.

  1. The glossary entry on “Progress” explains some of my misgivings about the term.
  2. Yes. The scare quotes are necessary… ahem.
  3. Ethnography.
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Help for Heroes are political – don’t pretend otherwise

25/09/2014

In what is becoming a depressing series of “charity is political, and if you pretend otherwise you’re living under a rock“, The Sun is using Help for Heroes wristbands to attack the leader of the Labour Party.

If you don’t know about Help for Heroes, they are a charity that provides support for armed forces veterans. Unlike the older British Legion, they have been much more willing and able to use social media and populist support for the military to further their cause. During the late 2000s and early 2010s, they were particularly high-profile, riding a wave of concern over the memory of World War Vets and the conditions to which combatants in Iraq and Afghanistan were being subjected.

Some of this was laudable. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) was accused of regularly sending troops into battle with sub-standard equipment. It was also at a time when general public opinion was beginning to doubt the point or legitimacy of campaigns in the Middle East.

But there was, and still is, something unsettling about Help for Heroes from a political perspective. As I discussed in an earlier piece, the existence of such charities can often be an excuse for the government to shirk its responsibilities. There has long been a campaign – a justified one – that the government should provide adequate support for people leaving the army. Medical and psychological care is, frankly, abysmal; and war pensions and benefits are often sub-par. This is all stuff that should be factored into the government’s budget. If you can’t afford to look after veterans, you can’t afford to go to war. Help for Heroes, despite its attempts to draw attention to this, can often be seen as a sticking plaster. While they keep doing the MOD’s work, why should the MOD or Treasury step in?

Worse, they have been literally doing the MOD’s work. BBC’s Newsnight ran a report accusing the charity of spending it’s money on government buildings and facilities and not on helping veterans and soldiers directly. Help for Heroes strenuously defended themselves, and the BBC’s complaints procedure agreed that their report had lacked editorial balance. But the fact remained that there was a clear relationship between government and the charity. To pretend otherwise – or to pretend that they are somehow apolitical – is nonsense.

And then there was the more sinister side of stirring up populist fervour for “our lads”. Britain has always had, compared to many other countries, a very positive view of the army. Even when individual wars have been opposed, the general narrative is that the soldiers themselves are brave individuals, risking their lives for our freedom. You can – for the most part – grumble about war itself. But the soldiers are untouchable. You don’t talk badly about veterans or soldiers without immediately offending large sections of the British public.

There are a number of historical reasons for it. First, our army tended to win the conflicts it fought in. Second, it very rarely turned its guns on its own people (though the Indians, Irish, Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians might want to argue with me on that one). Third, as a democratic nation, our army is often seen as a servant of the people, not as the enforcement platoon of the ruling classes. (The US has a similar relationship with its troops, though arguably with an even less critical gaze.)

I’m not going to try to overturn this view. It’s one, rightly or wrongly, I mostly buy into myself. But I am going to tie this to something which Help for Heroes has helped to create over recent years, and which should completely destroy the idea that these sorts of charities are apolitical. The hysteria over the poppy.

For those outside the British Isles, the British Legion produces millions of paper/plastic poppies every year in the lead up to Armistice Day – the commemoration of the end of World War One on 11th November. Everybody (or almost everybody) on British TV will be wearing one in October and November. It is meant to be a solemn, tasteful and low-key reminder of a generation of men who were slaughtered because of the whims of the ruling classes. And it represents everybody – repeat, everyone – who has lost their lives in conflict.

Over recent years, however, Help for Heroes and their ilk have consciously whipped up the poppy as a symbol of Britishness in the face of… well, who knows. Politically correct lefty feminist lesbian Romanian health and safety inspector censorship politicians, perhaps? As time has gone on, poppies have become more distasteful (and the British Legion has become complicit in this too). It culminated (for me) with the horrendous debacle over whether the English soccer team should be allowed to wear the poppy on its shirt.

Oh, the English. Unable to see how the poppy was a political symbol (how could the commemoration of fallen soldiers possibly be political) outrage was raged out across the internet. The English Defence League (see: fascist) led protests. The whole thing was highly distasteful. England had gone nigh-on 100 years without needing to wear a poppy on its shirt. But it needed to in a political climate in which outward shows of doing the right thing had become more important than actually doing it. Help for Heroes, amongst others, had helped create this storm.

So, to return to The Sun. So what if Milliband doesn’t back your campaign? One doesn’t need a bracelet – presumably a campaign which will directly compete with the British Legion’s poppy appeal this autumn – to show commemoration for the fallen. Milliband’s a Jewish public figure, whose dad fled the Nazis. I think he knows what war can do.

If Milliband has committed a faux pas by not supporting Help for Heroes, we should be worried. Because while not being involved might be seen as a political act, do not for a second think that supporting it is apolitical. I get the feeling that many in this country think the opposite. And that should worry us all, not just historians of charity.

We don’t want to fight but by Jingo if we do…
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That guy is just the worst. The. Worst, you guys…

17/09/2014

The Independent ran a piece this week on whether David Cameron risked becoming the worst prime minister of all time. Like, in forever, guys. Srsly.

Now, I sort of think this isn’t a bad little game to play. Thinking back over the Prime Ministers you remembered, the ones you studied – the stories you vaguely remember from history class or grainy documentaries. For instance, was Anthony Eden the worst ever for the whole Suez “snafu”? Or does Spencer Percival get the gong for “Prime Minister least able to leave office without a bullet through his chest“. Difficult, hard-hitting questions. And we historians aren’t afraid to shy away from them.

The problem is, while academics half-mockingly weigh up an impossible-to-even-begin-to-quantify conundrum, some people take it a bit… well… more seriously. And without any real recourse to historical method or evidence will blindly throw around accusations about how terrible a Prime Minister was based on not very much at all.

However, the Americans seem to take this sort of thing a little more seriously. There is actually a “Historical Rankings of Presidents of the United States” page on Wikipedia. And it’s backed up with data from C-SPAN, ABC, Gallup and more.

They seem to have given the middle finger to Warren G. Harding, though based on his love letters that might not surprise many of you.

So, we could look at PMs and try to rank them. What might we use? Popular defeat at the following election (indicating a terrible approval rating)? Losing a war? Getting involved in unnecessary conflict? Internal rebellion? A lack of concrete legislative victories? Getting shot? (OK, OK, I’ll lay off Perceval…)

It’s virtually impossible, especially for a twentieth-century historian with a self-professed ignorance of any Prime Ministers before 1939.1 So, while the article itself is worth a read, I think, the comments below the line offer some serious history porn. That seedy side of the internet where logic is damned and you can just go all out with the complete lack of disciplinary rigour. Be honest. You love that stuff really.

And so:2

What do you mean by about to become the worst PM? he already is in the majority of peoples minds.

Drole. Very drole. Not very original, given the variations on this particular theme, but an interesting premise. What Cameron has done so far makes him the worst PM ever?

He didn’t win the General Election outright against a very unpopular Labour government, but to be fair he did that while an MP and not a PM. The order of the letters is important. Since then, living standards (if measured in terms of the growth in real wages) have stagnated, the worst such dip since before man landed on the moon. Then there’s the whole unpleasantness over education, social security reform, and not having enough security for the Olympics.

But is any of that worse than, say, failing to secure Irish Home Rule (Gladstone, you muppet)? Or having your army mow down civilians (the Peterloo masacre – cheers, Liverpool)? Perhaps perspective is in order. Whatever your personal views on Cameron, up to now he’s just been pretty bad. But worst? That’s hyperbolic.

However, were he to lose Scotland, he’s certainly in the title hunt. Stay tuned.

Get real you bunch of Lefties Gordon Brown was the worst PM ever.

You talkin’ to me? Probably. The idea of Brown being the worst ever is even more ludicrous than thinking Cameron is. Yes, the world crash happened on his watch, but the clue is in the title – world. As Chancellor and PM, Brown’s oversight of the financial sector was as poor as everyone else’s. Doesn’t excuse it, but it does contextualises it. Besides – despite that, the economy was recovering when he left, and he could (or at least his party could) have formed a coalition with the minority parties. If he’s the worst ever, how come the opposition didn’t win outright? Next.

Has this numbskull never heard of Tony Blair????????

The most ruinous traitor the English have ever had to survive!!!!!

Cameron is a wet fart liberal, but never in Bliars league!!!!!

Strong words. Strong words from a strange man.

Blair will be forever synonymous with Iraq. And yet despite that he won three elections by landslides, presided over the longest period of continuous economic growth in British history, and became the longest serving Prime Minister of the twenty-first century (OK, that last one might have been by default). Still, he is perhaps the best example of a successful Labour Prime Minister.

Then there was the introduction of the minimum wage, the human rights act, strengthening of equalities legislation, the Northern Ireland peace process.

Once again – you might not care for the man. You might think he did horrific things. You may think he sold the soul of the Labour Party. But the worst Prime Minister ever? Mebbe not…

The reason all prime ministers’ careers end in failure is simple. They’re all cr*p.

This internet comment has it all. Censoring mild cursing. Painting all politicians with the same brush. Yes folks, Clement Attlee, who created the welfare state; and Winston Churchill who won the Second World War. Both those men are as fundamentally flawed (and, by association, as great as) as Alec Douglas-Home, Jim Callaghan, David Lloyd-George, Benjamin Disraeli, Ramsay Macdonald and Ted Heath.

This may well be the best conclusion, since we don’t have to do any historical research to verify it. Since they’re all shite, they all win. It’s like one of those sports days the Daily Mail hates.

You obviously cannot remember Thatcher.

Well, this one’s a twofer. Not only does it imply that memory is the key component in determining the worst ever (note: no history before c. 1910), it also plays the Maggie T card. Who was, as we all know, the worst/greatest heroine/traitor this glorious nation/run down sack of shit the world/Europe has ever seen/smelled.3

Not going to touch this with a ten foot barge pole. Except to say anyone who wins three consecutive elections, reforms the role of the state and became the first ever PM without a Y chromosome4 cannot be the worst ever. Sorry.

What utter nonsense. This paper is becoming unreadable.

Fair point. And this blog is going the same way. Apologies. I will return to “actual history” at some point in the near future.

By the way – if you have any nominations for the worst PM ever, do let me know by e-mail or in the comments section. The sillier the better.
  1. So much so, in fact, that I named all of my dwarves in Dwarf Fortress after PMs once, just so I could at least recognise the names.
  2. Names removed to protect the – well, let’s call them innocent.
  3. Delete as applicable.
  4. A fact both a) not verified by actual medical tests and b) reinforces the patriarchy’s binary, biologically deterministic views on gender politics.
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