The British jihadis in Syria might be driven by more than just religion

joanna_bourke_portrait

This article was written by Professor Joanna Bourke from Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. It was originally published on The Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’.

Reyaad Khan and Nasser Muthana sound like typical British young men. They are educated, mad about sport, and were raised in a loving family in Cardiff. When, a few days ago, they were seen in an Isis film urging British Muslims to join insurgents in Syria and Iraq, the shock was palpable. How could this have happened? Are their actions symptomatic of religious fundamentalism? Or are they simply an extreme form of youthful angst? After all, one had told his mother before disappearing that he was going to a friend’s house to revise for a maths examination.

For some commentators, these young men represent a crisis unique to British Muslims and are a justification for a further extension of surveillance of Muslim communities. Religious radicalism in the UK and throughout the world is a serious problem, but blaming religion alone takes us only so far. The problem is much wider. It includes the glamorising of violence: a fascination with armed conflict permeates male sub-cultures, crossing religious, ethnic, and class boundaries, while remaining very rooted in masculinity.

At the most general level, there is a quaint assumption in Britain that we are a peaceable people, engaging in armed conflicts half-heartedly and only when threatened by aggressors. Our role as perpetrators of violence is often overlooked. There is still considerable reluctance to acknowledge the atrocities committed during the age of empire. There is a similar reluctance to admit the role British policies have played in creating the political and economic environment that has helped foster terrorism in the Middle East.

But the problem is more complex. The glamorising of violence and military culture has effects beyond any particular group. It is not unique to young Muslim men – or, indeed, young men in Cardiff – to be excited by the prospect of combat. War is often seen as a rite of passage for young men – finally able to prove themselves as adults, not only to their parents but also to their peers. In all armed conflicts, men are heard boasting about the exhilaration of fighting, often neglecting to acknowledge their fears of dying.

This attitude is bolstered by war films, one of the most popular genres. Indeed, for many, war isn’t hell; it’s entertainment. Some of the most popular computer games are based on conflicts in the Middle East. They depict the thrills of battle taking place in “exotic” environments replete with scimitars, camels, caliphs, djinns, deserts, belly dancers, minarets, bazaars, and harems. Games such as Call of Duty and Medal of Honor typically cast “insurgents” as faceless, scruffy fighters, in contrast to the clean-shaven, uniformed “good guys” who are fond of cracking jokes and have a strong sense of loyalty to their comrades. Depictions of both “us” and “them” generate a sense of shared excitement and mission. War-play is seen as such an important recruiter for armed groups that Hezbollah has developed its own games, Special Force and Special Force 2, to provide an alternative fighting perspective.

The language used in public to discuss war has become extraordinarily distorted – and not only among radicalised communities. Combat is routinely described in the media as though it were a form of sport: combatants are “silent hunters” or “duellists”; they “score a try”. Making a kill is a “good shot placement”. Enemy combatants are described as having “received” a bullet. Last year, when the British army introduced a new combat sidearm, the Glock 17, which replaced the long-standing Browning Hi-Power pistol, the weapon was described without any sense of irony, as a “lifesaver”. The people that Glock 17s would maim and kill did not truly possess “lives”.

All this is not to discount the importance of cultural alienation and religion in the decisions of Khan and Muthana to join Isis. Clearly, faith and ideology are important. It is to point out, however, that they have been influenced by wider cultural forces that valorise militarism. These effects should be discussed alongside other contributing factors.

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Is there any value in talking about British values?

This post was contributed by Dr William Ackah, Lecturer in Community and Voluntary Sector Studies in Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies

The controversy over the allegations of ‘extremism’ in a number of Birmingham schools has led to a wider discussion on what constitutes ‘British values’. Michael Gove the Secretary of State for Education and David Cameron the Prime Minister have both responded to the situation in Birmingham by announcing that schools should teach ‘British values’. At a press conference in Sweden on 10 June, Cameron stated that these values should include “freedom, tolerance, respect for the law, belief in personal and social responsibility and respect for British institutions.” One of the questions I would like to explore here is whether an understanding of these ideas of Britishness would really resolve issues of social inclusion and equality in deprived communities or whether the appeal to ‘British values’ is a smokescreen that hides a multitude of equality and diversity issues not dealt with by British public institutions?

There is value in having a public debate about ‘British values’. Political theorists and others have long debated what values and mechanisms are required for arriving at the common good when you have a diversity of competing interests operating in society. Theologians speak of the ‘beloved community’ and explore what are the values, principles and ways of belonging that are required to create and sustain an ideal community. So it is legitimate to ask what type of communities we want to live in. What kinds of schools do we want our children to be educated in? The problem with the current debate is the context in which these questions are being framed.

The current debate is being framed by powerful white male politicians who in talking about ‘British values’ in relation to British Muslim minority communities, turn ‘British values’ into a racial marker or label of racial differentiation. The unspoken assumption being that certain behaviours are labelled as Muslim and that these are not compatible with being British. Hence it is not your passport or the taxes that you pay, but your ‘values’ and specifically ‘Muslim values’ that determine how British you are and the degree to which can legitimately participate in British public life.

It is striking that when other public and private institutions experience a crisis of governance they are not dealt with in this way. Recent crises have beset the newspaper industry, the Metropolitan Police, the National Health Service, the British Broadcasting Corporation, banks and last, but by no means least, MPs and Parliament. Weak governance, lack of due diligence, poor ethical standards, cultures of fear and intimidation can all have been said to have played some role in accounting for their institutional failings. These failings – not exclusively, but in the overwhelming majority of cases – have been perpetrated by members of white, mono-cultural, middle-class communities. They are failings that, in substantive terms, are similar to those attributed to the schools in Birmingham. Are these institutions deemed to be suffering from a lack of ‘British values’? No they are not, hence my contention that the current debate on ‘British values’ is not a genuine attempt to construct a political ethical framework for thinking about the common good, but rather it is a misguided attempt to re-racialise what it means to be British.

There is a need for a genuine discussion and debate to be had on values but the context needs to be reframed. Britain needs a discussion on whether its public institutions are genuine purveyors and defenders of equality and justice for all. Britain needs an honest and genuine reflection on whether its institutional and policy mechanisms are capable of delivering genuine justice and equality in a 21st-century, multicultural, multi-layered and multi-faceted society that incorporates Muslims rather than racialises them as an ‘other’ to be dealt with differently. The discussion needs to be reframed to talk about British institutions and the degree to which these institutions, to which we all contribute, genuinely reflect and represent the diversity of the country. Too many British institutions are woefully unrepresentative of the communities that they serve and too many members of minority communities bear the scars of discrimination, poor service delivery and injustice that they have received from these institutions. Where is the outcry over the lack of British values being put into practice on behalf of these citizens?  It is a long-standing scandal, where no one seems to be being held accountable for the startling lack of progress.  So yes, let us talk about ‘British values’, but more importantly let us see them concretised and realised for everyone and not used as a metaphorical stick with which to beat marginalized minority communities.

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The Fox in the Hen House? UKIP and the 2015 General Election

This post was written by Dr Ben Worthy, a lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Politics. It was originally published on the Department of Politics’ blog, 10 Gower Street.

This week’s European elections have produced fascinating and, in many countries, uncomfortable shifts in electoral support (though we shouldn’t forget Italy, where the centre-left has won and Greece and Spain, where the far left topped the polls). The results have already led to the Irish Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the opposition in Spain stepping down.

In the UK, attention has focused on UKIP, the minority anti-EU party that has ‘won’ the European Parliamentary elections, or at least got more votes than any other party, and done relatively well locally. The big question is whether UKIP will influence the 2015 General Election or fade away. Will UKIP be the (indirect) kingmaker or just a bad dream by this time next year? Below I’ve set out some of the different sides of the argument so that you can make up your own mind.

UKIP is here to stay: Kingmaker in 2015?

Journalist Michael Crick points out that the UKIP vote in the local elections is slightly down on previous years. However, winning council seats means being able to build organisations and networks in local areas to help get out the UKIP vote in 2015. UKIP is putting down roots across the country.

But will voters stay with them? Some argue that the UKIP votes are just a ‘protest’ vote and supporters will ‘return’ to their ‘normal’ parties for the election that matters-the General Election. This data from Lord Ashcroft’s polling shows that many UKIP voters (they estimate 50%) are likely to stay with UKIP in 2015 – other pollsters agree.

Just to make the situation more complicated, it isn’t clear that UKIP will cut down Conservative votes and ‘let in’ Labour. Analysis by the authors of the new book about UKIP voters, Revolt on the Right, indicates that UKIP’s appeal is cross-party and attracts as many unhappy Labour voters as Conservatives – see their results in Rotherham (Ed Miliband’s constituency).

So UKIP may not win seats but may make the 2015 General Election very complicated and unpredictable. The party could cause ‘chaos’ and create ‘an electoral map of nightmarish complexity’ in certain crucial seats. Even before the UKIP surge, 2015 was already going to be very close indeed. This prediction gives a ‘dead heat in 2015’ with the Conservatives on 36.1%, and Labour on 36.5%. On a side note, Ashcroft’s poll for the constituency of South Thanet, where Nigel Farage is rumoured to be standing in the General Election, puts UKIP support very high – see pg 1 column ‘voting intention’ and ‘certain to vote’.

UKIP fades away: A bad dream in 2015?

Not everyone is sure of UKIP’s new power. Smaller parties votes have always fallen back, often sharply, in national elections. More importantly, the First Past the Post system at Westminster makes it very difficult for minor parties to win seats.

The Telegraph’s Benedict Brogan is not convinced that UKIP’s momentum can be maintained. He points out that UKIP will now be under sustained media scrutiny (which didn’t always work successfully for them, especially in the last few weeks) and will have to begin explaining its domestic policies, which may be difficult. One of the most important players will be the media and how it covers UKIP for the next 12 months.

How well UKIP as a party can cope with the stresses and strains of being a ‘fourth’ political party is debateable. Brogan also points out that there have been many ‘new’ political parties ‘enjoying a moment of popularity…Remember the SDP? The Alliance? The Greens? Or even the Lib Dems, who under Nick Clegg have gone from breakthrough in 2010 to breakdown this weekend’.

One thing we can say for certain is that the next year will be interesting. Success is not all about seats and you may see UKIP’s influence in the policies that other parties now start to adopt. Keep an eye on the coming Newark by-election – will UKIP win their first seat?

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India fights for a pension: a campaigning success story

This post was written by Dr Penny Vera Sanso, a Senior Lecturer in Development Studies and Social Anthropology in Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies. It was originally published on the Age International blog.

India is home to around 104 million people aged over 60. Despite producing at least 50% of India’s GDP and despite contributing to the 4.5% growth rate – 90% of workers in India are trapped in low paid, insecure and pension-less work.

So, it is good news that, after many years of side-lining, social pensions are again on the political agenda; appearing on the manifestos of several national and regional parties.  This is a giant step forward.

India is a deeply divided and unequal country, but if you want to see another side to India, one promoting collaboration across socio-economic and cultural diversity, and one that is likely to have a positive outcome for older people, you would be hard pressed to find a better example than the campaigns that are pressing for a pension revolution – the Pension Parishad and the Right to Food Campaign.

A side of India that doesn’t hit the headlines

In March this year, the 5th National Convention of the Right to Food and Work Campaign was held. Over 2000 people participated from across the country.

It is a side of India that rarely hits the headlines; a side where differences of caste, class, religion, education, gender, age and able bodied-ness make no difference.

Held outside Ahmedabad in the grounds of the Dalit Empowerment Centre, a training centre for India’s most stigmatised castes, the Right to Food and Work Campaign transformed unpromising scrubland into a colourful covered meeting place for people to come together to discuss their concerns and formulate solutions on which all would campaign. I participated in the Pension Parishad workshop where almost all participants were women. When asked where the men were the women answered, as one, ‘At the food ration workshop’. And this was where I found them  – a perfect demonstration of how people were ensuring that they covered as much common ground as possible by participating in the framing of strategy and taking it all back home to their local organisations.

But this convention was just one of the proud moments of a campaign which began its journey many years earlier.

How did it start?  

First, in 2001 an extraordinary alliance of diverse groups and individuals came together to support each other in a common effort to secure basic human rights – that of the right to life and dignity for everyone in India.

Then at the 2010 Convention of the Right to Food and Work Campaign a unanimous decision was reached to campaign for a universal social pension. This spurred the development of the ‘Pension Parishad’ – a further network of NGOs and individuals focused on securing a universal social pension set at half the minimum wage.     

This led to thousands of older people across the country participating in rallies, but they were not alone.  They were joined by, and themselves supported, campaigns for widow’s pensions, disability pensions and pensions for sex workers and transgender people.

A comprehensive, cradle to grave campaign

The Right to Food Campaign uses all democratic means available to secure widespread support for the right to food and work and, latterly, the right to pensions. The Supreme Court has been moved (in both senses of the word), political parties lobbied and the media engaged.

Alongside this have been specific campaigns – to extend the public distribution system (that provides families with subsidised basic foods) and to enforce schemes supporting breast feeding and free cooked mid-day meals for school children and older people.  This has created a comprehensive, cradle to grave campaign to overcome endemic hunger.

There’s much to be learnt here but what I like best is: first, that despite deep social divisions people will come together to fight for their own and each other’s rights and second, that older people are willing and capable of fighting for their own and others’ rights.

Dr Penny Vera-Sanso has been researching and publishing on age, gender and poverty in India since the early 1990s. Recently she has been exploring visual methods for sharing research with non-academic audiences and of encouraging popular participation in research projects in order to spur public debate.  Her collaboration with The Hindu on the National Photographic Competition on the Working Elderly resulted in a unique permanent on-line gallery of nearly 3000 photographs of older workers from across India.  She has made two documentaries, We’re Still Working and The Forgotten Generation,  released in 2013 and her photo essay, ‘We too Contribute’, has been displayed as pop-up exhibitions across India.  

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British universities need Black Studies

This post was written by Dr William Ackhar, a lecturer in community and voluntary sector studies in Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies. It was originally published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site.

In San Francisco in 1968 a group of primarily black students went on strike to demand that their college establish an academic programme that reflected their lives and experiences. Their demand was met, and San Francisco State College became the first in the US to have a department and degree programme in Black Studies.

Nearly half a century later, Black Studies, Africana Studies or African-American Studies, as they are now variously named in different institutions, are a coast-to- coast academic discipline. Their academic departments in Ivy League institutions such as Harvard, Yale and Columbia are home to internationally renowned scholars.

Built on the two foundational pillars of academic excellence and social responsibility, Black Studies in the United States has led to the emergence of more black professors, heads of department and university administrators. From small beginnings, it has emerged as a genuine success story of the 1960s Civil Rights struggle.

As someone who draws heavily on the work of African-American scholars to inform my own teaching and research, I can only look with envy at what has been achieved in the US and wonder why, after all this time, there are still no equivalent Black Studies degree programmes and academic departments here in the UK.

In the past, universities did not feel there was a demand, need or interest in the subject but this is no longer the case. Britain’s black population is approaching 3 million and its increasing significance nationally and internationally in politics, religion, economics, science and the arts more than justifies the need for an academic discipline dedicated to researching and teaching the black experience, to UK society and the wider world.

On 15 May, a group of black scholars will meet to set up a British Black Studies Association, which will call for Black Studies degree programmes to be established. There has been a growing sense of frustration and anger among black British academics over how our communities have been treated by the British university system.

Black students are being encouraged to enter higher education in ever increasing numbers, yet there are no courses or departments where we can learn about ourselves, there is very little likelihood of being taught by a black professor, and according to the latest data there is no chance of seeing a black person leading and shaping the strategic direction of the university.

No wonder many black students, according to the National Union of Students, have a demoralising experience in higher education and on average are leaving university with poorer results than white counterparts who entered with equal A-level grades.

Black Studies – a social science covering subjects such as history, politics, religion, the arts, economics, geography and psychology – is needed to counter the damaging and corrosive idea that black culture is somehow anti-intellectual and that black people are not capable of contributing meaningfully to the intellectual life of this country. For example, it could include study of the Notting Hill carnival, building insight into its historical significance and connections to the Caribbean, South America and Africa, the complex religious symbolism that underpins it, its economic, geographical and cultural impact, and its role in establishing London as a global city.

Gender Studies has played an important role in shifting cultural attitudes and public policy towards women. The study of the black experience could be transformative for schools, police forces, mental health services and other arenas of public life that still have issues with black people. In education, a Black Studies perspective could be instrumental in tackling the underachievement of African-Caribbean boys.

By seeing their intellectuals, scientists, artists, technicians, being discussed, analysed and eulogised in schools and universities, the relationship between the black community and the authorities would change from that of “problem” to one of being productive contributors to society, resulting in engagement and achievement rather than continuing disengagement and underachievement.

This enhanced status of black life in Britain would ultimately result in more black teachers, intellectuals, and professionals being seen and heard in public life. And that is something many communities and public institutions in Britain need as a matter of urgency.

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Today is happiness day, but could greater happiness be a permanent reality?

David TrossThis post was contributed by David Tross, associate lecturer at Birkbeck. David is running a series of workshops on happiness and wellbeing as part of Birkbeck’s Pop-up University in Willesden Green, which is running until the end of May.

The 20 March is the UN International Day of Happiness, recognizing, it says, ‘the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world and the importance of their recognition in public policy objectives’. If you visit the UN’s observance day website, happy images include Ban Ki Moon dancing ‘gangnam style’ with puffy South Korean popster Psy, though paradoxically its text also recommends marking the occasion ‘in an appropriate manner, including through education and public awareness-raising activities.’ If this doesn’t sound particularly joyful, the UK organisation Action for happiness suggests a range of everyday activities to increase your happiness and those around you. If hugging strangers on the street sounds more dangerous than life-enhancing, then other ideas, including mindfulness meditation and keeping gratitude journals, are in keeping with older, eastern and western philosophical notions of how to live a good life.

What’s new is the shift in the claims made about the efficacy of these methods, with many contemporary scholars hailing happiness as a ‘new science’ on the basis of developments in measuring happiness that can be applied not just to individuals but to whole countries. The latest World Happiness Report, taking measures of self-reported life satisfaction and mood data from 156 countries, has proclaimed Denmark as the happiest country in the world, with fellow Scandinavian countries following close behind. (The UK is in 22nd place). Forget the bleakness and bad weather of popular scandi-noir TV shows, the research suggests. Denmark’s secret? Social equality, socialising across social classes, generous childcare policies, realistic personal expectations and a cozy spirit of togetherness the Danes call ‘hygge’ ( the closest translation might be the Irish ‘craic’). Although the scientific validity of these measures have been questioned, particularly  in terms  of cross-country comparisons, the findings are supported by claims brought to the public’s attention in 2008 with the publication of The Spirit Level, that the most unequal countries perform worst across a range of wellbeing indicators including trust, mental health, drug addiction, obesity and literacy.

This is the happiness paradox in action: after basic needs have been met, increased wealth has not produced greater happiness in rich countries, the gains made in life expectancy and income cancelled out by the personal and social stresses of a competitive, materialistic society. If happiness and wellbeing provides an alternative measure of social progress to economic growth then surely we should be encouraged by the enthusiasm of politicians, with David Cameron’s commissioning of an ONS-led UK happiness index the latest in a series of government-backed initiatives in France, Canada and the original happiness pioneers, the tiny nation of Bhutan. But some are suspicious. Government-backed happiness is the dystopian vision of Huxley’s Brave New World, where everybody feels good and nobody is free. And if the number of people relying on food banks to survive has tripled over the last year, why are we wasting our time on happiness when there are more pressing concerns? As the philosopher Julian Baggini has noted, ‘If you look at the countries that do best in surveys of wellbeing, they haven’t got there by having these indices. They’ve got there by agreeing what priorities should be”.

Such concerns are understandable in the context of recent ONS data suggesting the UK has become happier from 2012 to 2013; instead of an antidote, happiness measures could be used to legitimise austerity economics and increasing inequality.

The British economist Richard Layard declares that ‘happiness must be the business of government’. yet his policy recommendations, including spending to alleviate unemployment and poverty, sound almost socialist. Could it be that the happiness agenda could be a way of sneaking the politically taboo concepts of social justice and greater income equality in through the back door? Should you eliminate poverty because it makes people (including the rich) unhappy, or because it is the right thing to do? The answer might be to create the wider social and economic conditions conducive to individual fulfilment and not micro-manage the personal paths. But paradoxically, happiness is serious. Scroll along from the dancing UN secretary general on the UN website and you get a caption celebrating ten years of peace in Liberia. No disrespect to Psy, but that’s the kind of happiness many more would get behind.

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Putin needs to show more restraint than hero to avoid a new Crimean war

This post was written by Professor Orlando Figes of Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. He is the author of Crimea: The Last Crusade (Penguin). This article originally appeared on The Guardian on 28 February 2014.

Crimea: The Last Crusade, by Orlando FigesThe signs are ominous: Crimea’s parliament has been stormed by pro-Russian gunmen; its airports seized by soldiers in Russian uniforms; and Russian military trucks and helicopters are on the move. It looks like we are heading for a new Crimean war.

Its course is predictable. Russia‘s forces, or – more likely – their Crimean proxies, would carry out a coup to defend the interests of the Russian-speaking majority in the peninsula and hold a referendum to secure autonomy from Ukraine.

Perhaps Crimea would rejoin Russia, despite the objections of the Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians. The pro-Russian movement might then spread into south-east Ukraine, whose industries are heavily dependent on Russia. Ukraine loses, Russia wins.

Crimea was bound to be the focus of the Russian backlash against the Ukrainian revolution. The Black Sea peninsula is the only part of Ukraine with a clear Russian majority. For more than 20 years, ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, its rule by Kiev has been a major source of Russian resentment – inside and outside Crimea – and a major thorn in Ukraine’s relations with Russia.

The Treaty of Friendship and Co-operation – by which Russia rents its naval base at Sevastopol from the Ukrainian government – is so far-reaching in the rights it gives the Russians to exercise their military powers that it is seen by many in Ukraine to undermine the country’s independence. In 2008 the Ukrainians said they would not renew the lease when it expired in 2017. But they buckled under the pressure of a gas-price hike and, in 2010, extended the Russian navy’s lease until 2042. What will happen to it now is anybody’s guess.

From the Russian point of view, it is all the more annoying that Crimea was part of Russia until 1954. Exactly 60 years ago, on 27 February 1954, it was casually gifted to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev (after only 15 minutes of discussion in the Supreme Soviet Presidium), supposedly to mark the 300th anniversary of the 1654 treaty unifying Ukraine with Russia.

In those days of the “fraternity of peoples” in the USSR there were no real borders between the Soviet republics, whose territories were drawn up by largely artificial and even arbitrary means.

But the Soviet collapse brought real national feelings back. Russians in Ukraine felt they had been orphaned by the breaking of their ties to Moscow; they latched on to Crimea as a symbol of their nationalist resentments.

Crimea is vitally important to the Russians. According to medieval chronicles, it was in Khersonesos – the ancient Greek colonial city on the south-western coast of Crimea, just outside Sevastopol – that Vladimir, the Grand Prince of Kiev, was baptised in 988, thereby bringing Christianity to Kievan Rus’, the kingdom from which Russia derives its religious and national identity.

Ruled by the Turks and Tatar tribes for five hundred years, Crimea was annexed by the Russians in 1783. It was the fault line separating Russia from the Muslim world, the religious division on which the Russian empire grew.

Catherine the Great liked to call the peninsula by its Greek name, Taurida, in preference to Crimea (Krym), its Tatar name. She thought that it connected Russia to the Hellenic civilisation of Byzantium. She gave land to Russia’s nobles to build magnificent palaces along the mountainous southern coast, a coastline to rival the Amalfi in beauty; their classical buildings, Mediterranean gardens and vineyards were supposed to be the bearers of a new Christian civilisation in this previously heathen land.

The Tatar population was gradually forced out and replaced by Russian settlers and other Eastern Christians: Greeks, Armenians, Bulgarians.

Ancient Tatar towns such as Bakhchiserai were downgraded, while new towns like Sevastopol were built entirely in the neoclassical style. Russian churches replaced mosques. And there was an intense focus on the discovery of ancient Christian archaeological remains, Byzantine ruins, ascetic cave-churches and monasteries, to make a claims for Crimea as a sacred site, the cradle of Russian Christianity.

In the 19th century, the Black Sea fleet was the key to Russia’s imperial might. From Sevastopol it bullied the Ottomans into submission to Russia – a policy that led to the Crimean war after Tsar Nicholas I overplayed his hand in defence of the sultan’s Orthodox subjects and the British and their French allies sent their troops to Crimea to destroy his naval base.

For 11 months, the Russian sailors held out in the siege of Sevastopol – a struggle immortalised by Leo Tolstoy’s Sebastopol Sketches – before finally abandoning the town to the vastly superior allied forces. Their heroic sacrifice became a powerful emotive symbol of Russian defiance in the nationalist imagination.

The Russian character of Sevastopol is still defined by this siege mentality.

Memories of the Crimean war continue to stir profound feelings of Russian pride and resentment towards the west. Although it ended in defeat, the war has always been presented by the Russians as a moral victory. Nicholas I is one of Putin’s heroes because he fought for Russia’s interests against all the Great Powers. His portrait hangs in the antechamber of the presidential office in the Kremlin.

If a new Crimean war is to be avoided, Putin must show more restraint than his Tsarist hero. Nationalist emotions must be calmed. There are political remedies for the deep divisions in Ukraine. If peace can hold until the elections on 25 May, a new Ukrainian government might do well to consider options for the country’s federalisation to grant Crimea more autonomy.

But with deposed president Viktor Yanukovych now saying that the elections are “unlawful” there is much uncertainty and, if he speaks with Russia’s backing, little hope that those divisions can be peacefully resolved.

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After the flood: finding ways to insure the uninsurable without breaking the bank

This post was contributed by Dr Diane Horn of Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies. It originally appeared on The Conversation.

More wet and windy weather arrives week after week, with the inundated areas of the south and southwest of Britain still at the mercy of the elements. Even while politicians begin the blame game, we should look further ahead to when the floodwaters recede, the clean-up begins – and talk turns to who will pay.

In most countries, the government plays a role in covering flood losses. The UK is unusual because the government does not award compensation directly to individuals. Money is provided to local authorities through the Bellwin Scheme to reimburse the costs of emergency measures taken to safeguard life or property. But this is only intended to cover uninsurable risk.

Damage to private property is considered insurable and is not covered, which means compensation is drawn from the insurance industry, or charitable aid. The Prince’s Countryside Fund and the Duke of Westminster were among the first to make donations to help the flood victims, donating £50,000 each. As the floods continue, other businesses have pledged support. The government has also announced new measures, including a£5,000 grant to households and businesses to pay for repairs which improve a property’s ability to withstand future flooding. But most of those with property underwater will have to rely on insurance.

Unchartered waters

Big changes have swept through Britain’s flood insurance landscape. Until last July, flood insurance cover was available to households and small businesses as a standard feature of buildings and contents insurance under the Statement of Principles. Under this agreement, members of the Association of British Insurers (ABI) agreed to cover properties at risk of flooding in return for government commitment to manage flood risk.

Following extensive negotiations a new flood insurance scheme,Flood Re, was announced last June. This establishes a stand-alone, industry-run, not-for-profit insurance fund due to begin in 2015. Flood Re will provide cover for about 500,000 properties deemed at risk by the Environment Agency that might otherwise be uninsurable, or whose premiums are unaffordable. But the limitations of the Flood Re scheme need to be recognised.

While ABI members will continue to meet their commitments to existing customers, there’s no guarantee prices won’t rise between now and the implementation of Flood Re. In fact stories are already emerging about dramatic premium hikes, and the expectation is that these will rise further.

Policy recommendations

The government needs to take responsibility in the event of a catastrophic flood, but Flood Re’s liability will be capped at an expected limit of about £2.5 billion per year, equivalent to a 1:200 year flood loss scenario. As to who will bear the costs beyond this, the government has made no commitment. But this is a question that needs an answer. PricewaterhouseCoopers have estimated the insurance losses for December and January at £630 million, and while it’s too early to count the costs of the current floods, insurance industry forecasts suggest losses could reach £1 billion if the rains continue.

What is also needed from the government and insurers are incentives to reduce flood risk. Planning controls need to restrict development in flood risk areas, set higher standards for buildings on floodplains, and require that the best techniques to improve resilience against flooding are used when rebuilding and refitting after flood damage. As we argued in a paper published inNature Climate Change, using the flood insurance market to drive better adaptation to flood risk and the effects of climate change needs to be part of a wider strategy that includes land-use planning, building regulations and water management.

The Flood Re scheme needs to be clear whose insurance it will subsidise, and the effects on those not insured under the scheme. In fact many properties at risk will be excluded from the scheme. When Flood Re was first proposed, three categories of property owners were excluded from participation: small businesses, properties built after 1 January 2009, and properties in the highest council tax band.

It has since emerged that Flood Re will exclude many more properties than originally thought, with any policy classed as “non-domestic” unable to participate in the scheme, regardless of the risk. This will include housing association and council properties, many leasehold or private rented sector properties where homes are not insured individually, and properties which are both a residence and a business.

As it is, Flood Re does not reduce flood loss, but only spreads the risk, and therefore the costs, by protecting some policyholders at the expense of others. High-risk properties will be subsidised for decades by payments from low-risk households, with the financial risk still covered by the insurance industry, and government carrying no liability. Policyholders are unlikely to accept this situation without protest, and here the US experience may prove instructive.

Lessons from the US

In the US, flood coverage is excluded from property policies provided by private insurers, and is only available through theNational Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), with the federal government acting as insurer of last resort. Following massive payments for flood claims related to Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, the NFIP is approximately US$26 billion in debt. This led to legislation to reform the program, phasing out subsidies over five years, and increasing the annual rate until premiums reflect the true risk.

But as rates rose and homeowners faced huge bills, sometimeshikes of 600-1000%, they pressured congress to delay these rate hikes. Republicans and Democrats found common cause for once, with the proposal sailing through the normally divided senate in a matter of weeks. Less than two years after the flood insurance reform legislation was passed, the senate voted to delay premium increases for up to four years while the Federal Emergency Management Agency drafts a plan to make flood insurance premiums more affordable and re-evaluates the accuracy of its Flood Insurance Rate Maps.

Flood insurance reform efforts in the US have shown the political implications of angry voters. With flooding in some parts of Britain about to enter a third month and costs spiralling, it is something the UK government is also learning the hard way, with Flood Re facing its first test before it even has come into operation.

The Conversation

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Teaching American History in Michael Gove’s Britain

This post was contributed by Dr Adam Shapiro, Lecturer in Intellectual and Cultural History in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. Dr Shapiro also has his own blog: Trying Biology.

The controversy started by Education Secretary Michael Gove about how to teach history is likely to be a reference point among British historians (or historians based in Britain) for quite some time.

As a lecturer of American history in the UK, I asked my class for their reaction to Gove’s column, which focused mainly on the historical causes of the First World War and the large number of events commemorating its centenary this year. Several points came up:

Moralized Histories

With my current cohort we haven’t yet reached the First World War from an American perspective, but it is clear that the US perspective on the War would look very different to the British one. While William Jennings Bryan, the US Secretary of State from 1913-15, would have had no problem agreeing that at the outbreak of World War One Germany had “the ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order,” (as Gove describes them) he nonetheless disagreed sharply that these elements “all made resistance more than justified.” Indeed, Bryan placed the blame for war not solely on the German governing elite, but in governments that were too supportive of promoting the industries that found war to be profitable. Decades before we saw Eisenhower’s warning of a military-industrial complex, its precursors can be seen in the conjunction of Bryan’s pacifism and economic populism. But perhaps for Gove, Bryan is another leftist who simply refused to acknowledge the existence of evil.

In class, this led to a discussion of what I might call a Manichean approach to diplomatic and military history.  People don’t tend to call their enemies by names such as “the Evil Empire” with the caveat that their own force is only slightly less evil. That kind of rhetoric is designed to make a clear moral distinction. In our discussion of the US civil war, we discussed whether the victory of the North could be expressed in moral terms: that the North won because its cause (against slavery) was morally superior to that of the South. We considered whether this explanation served better than a claim that the North had military or economic superiority, or whether the South was beset by subversion within its ranks.

We turned to the account of the war written by Confederate General Jubal Early. Early ridiculed the claims that the cause of the war was slavery, pointing out that the North had profited by it almost as much as the South. Slavery was “used as a catch-word to arouse the passions of a fanatical mob,” Early wrote in his memoir.

Early’s narrative shows the Southern fight for independence as just and moral, and that the Northern leaders invoked slavery to distract from their own desire for economic exploitation of the South through conquest. The North won not through moral right, nor through military skill, but through sheer force of numbers. The story Early gives is one in which the South suffers a defeat, a punishment, almost in religious terms as a test of faith.

As an experiment, I asked several friends and colleagues about a passage from Early, while withholding its context

“the people of the United States will find that, under the pretense of ‘saving the life of the nation, and upholding the old flag,’ they have surrendered their own liberties into the hands of that worst of all tyrants, a body of senseless fanatics.”

Out of context, people thought that it was a liberal critique of the Patriot Act or the NSA. This led to the question as to whether or not ‘fanatic’ was simply a term that anyone could invoke at any time, to demonize their opponents. At which point, referring to opponents as fanatics says more about the person using that rhetoric than it does about the opponents themselves.

Morality and Individual Agency

So did it matter whether Jubal Early, or a soldier killed in Pickett’s Charge thought that their actions were morally just and in opposition to unjust tyrants? Did it matter for the British Soldier going over the top in the Somme? It matters in a personal sense—it matters to them, and to the people who knew them. We can recognize the moral behaviours of individuals, where the evidence permits, but does doing so explain anything about the outcomes of the war? The importance of the moral character of soldiers in the outcome of war is a question as old as Thucydides, but it does tend to suggest that history is a composition of individuals acting as personal moral agents and that there are no social facts that constrain, influence, or reward individual behaviours. It might be that the soldier in the Somme was conscious of the moral virtue of his action, or he may have felt trapped in a situation he could not control. A lack of emphasis by historians of the heroism of these individuals does not diminish their sacrifice or their heroism; it recognizes that there were other causes at work than simply individual moral actions. That despite the moral virtue of some individuals, they lost battles, or despite the moral depravity of their opponents, they won. At such a point, we need something else to explain historical cause and effect.

And this is where the issue becomes practically important, because if it’s the case that individual moral virtue is insufficient to be universally rewarded, then that has an impact on political ideologies that emphasize purely individualistic approaches to the solving of problems in society. If crime must be addressed solely by punishing criminals and never looking at the social systems that perpetuate criminality. If poverty and unemployment are seen solely as referenda on the moral heroism of the poor and unemployed (or the wealthy and employed) then they cannot be treated by social interventions.

History and Ideology

If history explains how causes and effects work in human behaviour, then it offers us guidelines by which we can assess personal and political action. Students generally agreed that it was an error to see the point of history as validating ideology – the point of history is not to compel all facts to fit into a grand narrative of class struggle, or a battle between forces of good and evil waged by heroes and villains, it ought to be a discussion of the balance of causes pulling at different levels. While Gove may have a point that some historians are committed to an ideology, replacing it with a different ideology seemed a poor fix.

Ideology and School History

What struck me as odd was the fact that so many people regarded the politicization of the history curriculum as something new. And yet my students were aware that it had been a longstanding issue in American education. Perhaps this was because there’s no single unitary curriculum under national control in the United States, but my class had looked at examples of US and Canadian politicians citing interpretations of history to support differing interpretations of the same event. For some, it was easy to recognize differences in political ideology lurking behind Columbus Day proclamations issued by Presidents Bush and Obama.

We also raised a question for later: how can we remain historically detached when discussing the history of the history wars?

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E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class and the Future of History from Below

This post was contributed by Dr Brodie Waddell, Lecturer in Early Modern History in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. A previous version was published in The Future of History from Below Online Symposium.

Half a century ago, E.P. Thompson published The Making of the English Working Class. Words like ‘pioneering’ and ‘pivotal’ are overused today, but this was truly a book with no equal in its field. In it, we see the arrival of the Industrial Revolution and struggle for political rights that defined the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Of course these stories had already been told many times before, but Thompson cut a new path by reconstructing these events from the perspective of the working people who experienced them first-hand.

He set out his agenda very clearly in the preface:

I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.

This phrase, and the 900-page ‘biography of the English working class’ that followed it, inspired an exuberant outpouring of historical research and writing that has made us all richer. Hundreds of historians, both professional and amateur, have followed Thompson in seeking to tell the stories of the innumerable men and women who had long been ignored by traditional histories of kings and battles.

However, the anniversary of this publication also calls for reflection. Thompson’s book may have launched ‘history from below’, but is it still relevant today? And does it have future?

A group of almost fifty historians – both young scholars and eminent professions – gathered at a recent pair of workshops that Mark Hailwood and I organised to answer these questions. We published some of the contributions as an online public symposium and I think it is fair to say that level of interests that it sparked suggests that ‘history from below’ does indeed have a potentially bright future.

I will be talking about this in more detail at an upcoming event at the Birkbeck Institute for Humanities on January 24th, alongside two very esteemed scholars: Prof. Jane Humphries (Oxford) and Prof. Sander Gilman (Emory). However, here I’d like to briefly highlight the issues that I think are most important to those who aren’t professional historians.

If we want the practice of history from below to have a meaningful future, we need to continue to push for more a democratic history. For example, access to higher education in Britain and North America expanded dramatically through much of the twentieth century, but the recent spike in tuition fees in England and the long-term rise in the US has made university much less affordable for students from working-class families. Worse still, this has hit part-time students especially hard, leading to a 40% fall in part-time applications since 2010 in the UK. We must face this challenge head-on.

We need more people writing history, more people studying history, and more people reading history. We need, in other words, more people doing history. Fortunately, more democratic ways of doing history are not difficult to find. There are already vast numbers of people building histories ‘from below’, but most academics tend not to pay much attention to them.

One promising route forward is local history.  The field of local history is huge and healthy. Practically every town and village in the country has some sort of local history society, ranging from the unapologically antiquarian to the Bristol Radical History Group, which claims the support of ‘a much wider network of footballers, artists, techies, drunks, rioters, publicans, ranters, ravers, academics, Cancan dancers, anarchists, stoners and other ne’r do wells’. It is often these groups that fight to protect and promote important local historical sites which, because they aren’t pretty country houses, might otherwise be forgotten or destroyed. Local history, then, is an opportunity for academics, students and amateurs to work together to do history from below in a way that will be relevant far beyond the university.

Family history is another rapidly growing field. Lecturers may chuckle, but proponents of ‘history from below’ should embrace it. After all, most genealogists are unlikely to find many famous politicians or generals in their family trees. Instead, they will probably find themselves investigating the lives of factory workers, sailors, criminals, paupers, housewives and maybe even ‘poor stockingers’. So, family history, with its millions of practitioners, wealth of resources, and thoroughly democratic focus on the ‘common people’ of the past, will be another fruitful field to cultivate the future of history from below.

Finally, we need accessible education. The pioneers of ‘history from below’ spent much of their time teaching students who would have otherwise missed out on a traditional university education: E.P. Thompson wrote The Making of the English Working Class whilst working for the Workers’ Educational Association in Yorkshire’s industrial towns; Eric Hobsbawm spent his entire academic career teaching evening classes at Birkbeck; Raphael Samuel founded the History Workshop movement amongst the trade unionists of Ruskin College. Happily, these institutions are still carrying on this work. I feel privileged to work at a place like Birkbeck, founded in 1823 as the London Mechanics’ Institute, and still offering evening classes to students with other work or family commitments. Despite the dangerous impact of the fee increases mentioned above, I believe that these long-established institutions – alongside others such as the Open University – will be a key part of the future of this approach to history. Moreover, open-access publishing and the explosion in history blogging is dramatically expanding the reach of research, allowing practically anyone to benefit from the scholarly work that previously would have been available to only a tiny minority.

This suggests that the future of history from below is all around us. It is going on today in meetings of village historical societies, in family history workshops, and in the comments sections of amateur history blogs. What they have in common is their role in empowering people who wouldn’t normally have a voice in history to learn and think and speak about the past. In short, they are all part of a more democratic way of doing history, the very essence of history from below.

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